Rations Cornucopia ~ DARPA selects teams to develop on-demand delicious, nutritious microbial food for troops from air, water and electricity.
Press Release, Arlington VA, February 2023: DARPA’s Cornucopia programme aims to create a variety of healthy new microbial-based foods using three ingredients — air, water, and electricity — with minimal or no supplementation. If successful, troops one day could deploy with a transportable system that makes nourishing and appetising food on demand in remote locations, obviating costly and brittle food supply chains.
Three teams are now on contract to demonstrate production of microbial biomass consisting of all four human dietary macronutrients — protein, carbohydrate, fat, and dietary fibre — in ratios that target Military Dietary Reference Intake (MDRI) daily requirements for complete nutrition. Outputs will be in multiple food formats such as shake, bar, gel, and jerky that meet military nutritional standards and palatability requirements in a production system minimising inputs, handling, and footprint.
“The microbiome in our bodies is made up of tens of trillions of micro-organisms, and we consume billions of microbes a day in foods such as cheeses, breads, yoghurts and many others,” said Molly Jahn, Cornucopia programme manager. “Even so, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the universe of microbial species we could explore to create nutritious and flavourful foods from the basic elements, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. We’ve seen in recent years how protein-focused microbial foods have taken off commercially, offering options for meatless and dairy alternatives that taste delicious. Cornucopia aims to expand to other key macronutrients for a complete diet and be able to produce them in appetising formats at the point of consumption.”
A Cornucopia system would use electricity to separate water into usable hydrogen and oxygen, and harvest nitrogen and carbon from the air. Cornucopia is focused on two use-case scenarios: First, providing complete nutritional requirements for a small military combat unit deployed in an austere environment for 45 days (in a system that would fit on a Hum-vee); and second, in a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief situation, feeding 100 civilians for 21 days in a (using a system of four boxes that would fit inside a standard 20-foot shipping container).
DARPA selected four research approaches to meet the challenges of Cornucopia:
- The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, teamed with North Carolina State University, Johns Hopkins University, and Meridian Biotech, seeks to use tailored organisms to produce a rich glucose and ammonium feedstock from air, water, and electricity. This feedstock will be consumed by modified Generally Recognised As Safe (GRAS) organisms that will produce a broad range of outputs resulting in downstream control over nutritional content and optimal tailorability of food products.
- SRI International, Kiverdi, Inc., Air Protein, Inc., and Nitricity, Inc., aim to develop an innovative integrated process utilising high-protein oxyhydrogen cultures and high-carbohydrate microalgae to produce a nutritionally-complete foodstuff in a variety of flavours. These bioprocesses will be coupled with a novel plasma-based nitrogen pulled from air, captured carbon dioxide from generator exhaust, and hydrogen and oxygen from electrolysis of water to enable the production of food in a resource-scarce environment.
- University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign seeks to develop an integrated platform that harnesses electrochemical and plasma technologies to fix carbon dioxide and nitrogen into organic substrates which are subsequently fed to specialised GRAS microbes for the production of food tailorable for the ratios of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and fibre. This system is designed to create no waste, increase process efficiency, and reduce power requirements with a portable footprint.
- Harvard Medical School seeks to establish a strain of bacteria suitable for rapid and scalable production of organic matter and feedstocks from air and electrochemical processes. The team will use a combination of bioengineering and evolutionary approaches to evolve the bacteria for rapid growth on nitrogen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methanol.
The teams represent wide diversity including 13 distinct approaches to carbon and nitrogen fixation, 12 distinct microbial and algal species, 39 microbial-origin flavours, and 18 food-processing approaches.
DARPA is working closely with the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) – Soldier Center, Combat Feeding Division (CFD). DEVCOM Soldier Center executes a joint-service programme that supports warfighter lethality and resiliency by providing nutritious, palatable food that meets Office of the Surgeon General’s nutrition standards. CFD partners with government agencies, industry and academia to rapidly transition high-performance nutrition technology to the Joint Services and commercial food industry.
“We are excited to be the transition partner to the Cornucopia programme’s technology targeted for use in the contested environment, where resources, manpower and space are limited,” said Nicole Favreau Farhadi, CFD senior research chemist. “Harnessing energy and resources in place will maximise lethality, warfighter performance and dominance. This point-of-need food supply may sustain units deployed in contested logistic environments and reduce Class 1 logistics burdens.”
Editor’s footnote: In mythology Cornucopia or the ‘horn of plenty’ was the symbol of abundance and nourishment.