research team in a lab wearing masks

NASA has selected a research team at Southern Illinois University Carbondale to work on a machine that would use microbial processes and recycled carbon to provide tasty, nutritious food to astronauts on future deep space voyages. The team, from left to right, includes, Poopalasingam Sivakumar, Gayan L. Aruma Baduge, Ken Anderson, Matt McCarroll, Lahiru Jayakody and Scott D. Hamilton-Brehm. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

November 02, 2021

SIU research team aims to move food replication from science fiction to reality

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Science fiction fans have will no doubt remember scenes from their favorite shows in which characters press a few buttons before their favorite gourmet meal pops out of a machine, looking like it came from the kitchen of a four-star restaurant. It may not work quite like that, but a research team at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is working on a machine to provide tasty, nutritious food to astronauts on future deep space voyages, using microbial processes and recycled carbon.

NASA recently selected the SIU team’s µBites (pronounced “micro-bites”) design as one of 18 nationwide showing promise. The SIU team, led by Lahiru Jayakody, assistant professor of microbiology, will receive $25,000 to pursue its phase two design for NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge. The contest, which saw teams conceive novel food technologies to solve the problems of feeding astronauts on long voyages, began in January.

The contest focused researchers on the challenges of deep space exploration, with its need to create nourishing, safe and palate-pleasing food with minimal resources and minimal waste. But Jayakody sees ready application for such technology on the spaceship known as Earth.

“We have to reinvent the food production system to ensure food security,” Jayakody said. “It is an urgent need for future humanity, and ideally, we need a system that can produce food in extreme environments using untapped carbon in disaster-affected areas and resource-scarce regions. There is no doubt that microbial-based food production is one of the best solutions.”

NASA Television, along with the NASA app and the agency’s website, plans a show on the Deep Space Food Challenge set for 10 a.m. Nov. 9.

Let’s eat

There’s an old joke about the sausage factory, but in this case, we’ll go ahead and take peak at how µBites would work if it someday rides with astronauts to faraway locations like Mars or beyond. Because it is a loop of sorts, we join the artificial intelligence-controlled process in progress…

You start with only finest biomass and/or waste plastic such as the single-use plastic containers that become the resource to make the food. After grinding these ingredients into a uniform slurry, it is then sent into a reactor using oxidative hydrothermal dissolution (OHD) technology, a process pioneered by SIU professor Ken Anderson that uses water, heat, pressure and oxygen to break down and transform biomass into different types of precursors or in this case, liquid carbon. This step makes it accessible to the hungry microbes, like yeast, that will perform the next step.

The liquid carbon is then pumped into a bioreactor bag, where it meets with engineered microbes that further process the slurry and create food ingredients. As much water as possible is reclaimed for future processing while the slurry moves to the next step: final preparation into the desired consistency, ranging from semi solid to liquid. It is further mixed with dried spices or supplements to achieve the final, highly customizable result.

Push-button food

That’s where the sci-fi, push-button food machine comes into play. A 3-D food printer at this point will shape and “print” the final food product into an aesthetically pleasing item before serving it up to the hungry star voyager.

“Our design was created to feed four crew members during a three-year mission to Mars,” Jayakody said. “The system uses less energy and water to generate delicious and nutritious food at a fast rate.”

Grabbing his interest

Jayakody has always had an interest in the potential of microbial food processes, especially the handy little bug known as yeast. SIU being home to the Fermentation Science Institute (FSI) is one of the main reasons he wanted to work for the university.

“Since my undergraduate research work in Sri Lanka, I have been working with yeast, and I really love the organism,” Jayakody said. “I realized the FSI is a great place for my yeast adventure.”

After attending a conference on food in space in 2019, Jayakody’s interest grew, and he realized the multidiscipline, synergistic nature of SIU research could play a major role in NASA’s plans.

“It was obvious that we needed a multidisciplinary team to earn this highly competitive grant,” Jayakody said. “I am blessed to collaborate with extremely creative and smart researchers. We make a cohesive crew. We are very honored to be one of the winning teams.”

Along with Jayakody, FSI director Matt McCarroll and Advanced Coal Energy Research Center Director Ken Anderson also are signed on as co-investigators on the µBites project. Scott D. Hamilton-Brehm, assistant professor of microbiology, and Poopalasingam Sivakumar, assistant professor of physics, and Gayan L. Aruma Baduge, associate professor the School of Electrical, Computer and Biomedical Engineering, round out the SIU members of the team, which also includes researchers from other institutions, including Rina Tannenbaum of Stony Brook University, Iwona Jasiuk of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Kaustav Majumder of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In it to win it

Jayakody and the rest of the team will continue working to perfect and prove the design throughout the next three to four years. Many problems remain to be solved, including engineering the hardware to be light, simple to operate and easy to maintain and repair, as well as developing the correct strains of microbes. Several graduate students will also be involved in the work.

Jayakody remains hopeful the team will win the overall design contest, not just for the future of space travel.

“The developed system is portable and can be adapted to produce food on Earth, where resources are limited,” he said. “And of course, definitely on Mars when we have colonies there sometime in the future.”