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Mason Brockett

The Three-Ingredient Food of the Future


The DARPA Project Logo

The DARPA Project Logo

Our current practices of food production use significant amounts of water, land, and other resources, all while generating various agricultural wastes. But food production is so essential that there’s not much we can do about these inherent costs. Or is there?

What if we could dramatically reduce the amount of resources needed to make food? What if we could produce food with nothing more than air, water, and electricity? While it sounds futuristic, bioengineering professor Ting Lu and his team of co-PIs–including professors Paul Kenis (chemical and biomolecular engineering), Mohan Sankaran (nuclear, plasma, and radiological engineering), Christopher Rao (chemical and biomolecular engineering), Yong-Su Jin (food science and human nutrition), Keith Cadwallader (food science and human nutrition), and Vijay Singh (agricultural and biological engineering)–believe that this reality might be closer than it seems.

With a steadily increasing global population, a decreasing amount of arable land, and potential production instabilities in the future due to climate change, it is becoming more and more important to identify new ways to produce food. Creating a food source that can be generated anywhere on the planet with minimal resources is the kind of innovation that could make a difference in the future of sustainability.

“These types of projects are really exciting because they give us a challenge to think out of the box,” said Lu. “Can we really turn air, water, and electricity into safe, palatable, and nutritious food? It’s a very ambitious goal, but one that we are looking forward to meeting.”

After successfully applying for and receiving a four-year, $10.4 million research grant from the U.S. government agency Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Lu and his fellow co-PIs are ready to get to work on their three-ingredient food.

“The process requires several steps that are each in their own right complex, and then all the steps must be integrated to work together,” said nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering professor Mohan Sankaran, a fellow co-PI on the project. “Some of those steps are to ‘fix’ the N2 and CO2 in air to compounds such as ammonia and acetate. Next, these compounds are fed to microbes to produce biomass containing the proteins and carbohydrates that make up food.”

Currently, Lu envisions this food as more of a supplement than a full meal, with plans to structure this new source of nutrients into three different forms: a shake, a gel, and a dried jerky. Lu has a goal of producing 100 grams of food next year, and a broader goal of one day seeing production plants that create the food on a larger scale.

Not only is this proposed technology faster in food production and better for the environment than our current methods, but it’s highly portable. If this method takes off, food could be possibly produced in the South Pole as easily in the Midwest. Inhabitants of remote islands, mountains, rainforests and beyond could all produce their own food, regardless of land or other natural resources.

But even a food source that’s a scientific marvel has to taste good. “Flavor quality is the main determinant of food acceptance by the consumer,” said co-PI and food science and nutrition professor Keith Cadwallader. “In our project we are taking a practical approach by designing systems that create a variety of generic flavors that mimic certain classes or types of popular flavors, such as “sweet aromatic”, “fruity-berry” and “savory-meaty” flavors.”

It’s just one more element of this three-ingredient food to look forward to: it will come in a wide range of flavors, from sweet to savory, no matter what form it takes.“Our goal is not to make a food with a single flavor but to make foods that can be easily customized for consumer preferences, like when we choose vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate flavors in ice cream shops,” said fellow project co-PI and food science and nutrition professor Yong-Su Jin.

Scale-up of this project and end-to-end integration will be conducted by agricultural and biological engineering professor Vijay Singh, another co-PI on this project. This work is being conducted in his lab and at the Integrated Bioprocessing Research laboratory (IBRL), a translational research facility at the University of Illinois.

“At IBRL, we have most of the bioprocess equipment required to conduct full demonstration of this exciting project creating food from air, water and electricity,” said professor Singh, who also serves as Executive Director of IBRL.

Clearly a project of this scale requires expertise on many levels. Lu was quick to point out that their project is a true team effort that benefits tremendously from the breadth of research and collaborative culture of the University.

“I am so grateful to be a member of this interdisciplinary research team,” said Jin. “Our UIUC team is the only one comprising all team members from a single research institution among the DARPA awardees.”

It’s rare to have the opportunity to work on a project that incorporates so many disciplines and could one day have an effect on such a basic element of our everyday lives, and Lu is eager to see the project through.

“If successful, our project will have a potentially transformative impact,” Lu said. “We’re grateful to DARPA for this opportunity and excited to be able to work on something that we feel special.”

By: Bethan Owen

URBANA, Ill. – The Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL) at the University of Illinois welcomed a group of industry professionals from around the globe for the “Revitalization of Corn Processing Facilities for the Future” short course.

The course took place over two days at the beginning of October and focused on how companies can valorize under-utilized corn processing facilities in the growing precision fermentation and bioindustrial manufacturing fields. The course welcomed 28 participants from 20 companies, as well as 10 presenters that included faculty specialists from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and industry representatives.

“This course is designed to help corn-processing companies think about impactful ways to use their pre-existing equipment for new opportunities,” explains IBRL Executive Director Vijay Singh. “The Midwest agricultural system invested heavily in equipment and infrastructure to support both the ethanol and high fructose corn syrup industries. As both of those markets lose consumer traction and corn yields continue to increase, revitalizing facilities and developing new uses for corn is crucial to the Midwest’s economy.”

Course presentations ranged from dry grind ethanol and wet milling to potential partnerships for existing corn processing facilities. Brian Jacobson, associate director of strategic operations, gave an in-depth tour of IBRL and equipment capacity, providing a look at some of the described new technologies. Participants also had the opportunity to speak with Jacobson and other IBRL experts regarding the equipment needed to support corn-based industries, services IBRL offers for running pilot trials and, and training opportunities.

Following the tour, local brewery Riggs Beer Company hosted participants for a networking reception that included research poster presentations from nine graduate students from the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI). A representative from CABBI’s RISE summer internship program also presented on industry sponsorship and engagement opportunities. The RISE program focuses on internships in sustainable bioenergy for groups that are currently underrepresented in STEM disciplines.

Course participants included professionals from a variety of companies with different specializations, and their motivations for attending were just as far-reaching. Russ Zeeck, Chief Operating Officer at AgVault,LLC, has 30 years of experience in agricultural processing facilities and was excited to network with industry professionals and hear the latest technological trends. Zeeck was impressed not only by the short course, but also by IBRL’s equipment capabilities and knowledgeable staff. He found the honest discussion and straightforward approach to discussing the struggling ethanol industry beneficial to participants and more realistic than other industry conferences.

Another participant, Binita Bhattacharjee, Vice President of Process Development and Engineering at New Culture Foods reflected, “For someone that is mostly focused on scaling precision fermentation applications, IBRL’s workshop provided an excellent opportunity to better understand the economic advantages of locating precision fermentation facilities near dry grind operators, the technical considerations behind maximizing re-use of existing infrastructure, and the key engineering companies in this space. Thanks, IBRL, for an efficient, accessible and well-paced workshop!”

In an effort to continue to engage industry and educate the workforce, IBRL plans to host a three-day short course in March titled “Fermentation and the Art of Scaling Up.” This course will explore the growing bioindustrial fermentation industry as it relates to products like food, fibers, plastics, and cosmetics, while giving participants the opportunity to receive hands-on training with pilot-scale fermentation equipment. For more information, please visit

Participants gather after receiving certificates of completion

Meet Anto Nirmal

I am Anto Nirmal, a Bioprocessing and Bioenergy graduate student at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. Over the summer, I worked as a Process Development Intern at Forge Biologics, a gene therapy manufacturing company. This opportunity provided a more in-depth understanding of how industrial research works and confirmed my interest in it. I was able to connect with a lot of people and learn more from their experiences. Through my internship experience, I understood the importance of planning and time management while designing and performing multiple research studies. The satisfaction I got out of this internship was immense and I enjoyed working in a lab setup. As a part of the internship program, we volunteered at Mid-Ohio Collective Foodbank, where we worked as a team supporting the initiative. The overall experience was fruitful, and the memory would be cherished forever. After finishing my undergraduate in Biotechnology, I decided to do my master’s in Bioprocessing and Bioenergy to learn and gain more skills related to the processing of bioproducts. I also believe that doing this program unlocks my career aspirations that are otherwise blocked, enabling me to be an asset when I enter the workforce.

To find out more about the Professional Science Master’s in Bioprocessing and Bioenergy, use this link.

Meet James Consiglio

I interned at Neste US this summer in Houston, TX. Neste produces renewable diesel (RD) and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) for companies across the globe, and they are an active participant in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) market. I applied for an internship with Neste because I am studying bioenergy here at UIUC, and I want to work in the renewable fuels industry after graduating.

I was placed on the Feedstock Growth team, whose responsibilities include researching potential sourcing partners and investigating future feedstocks that meet their technical and sustainability standards. I loved talking with all the members on the team and hearing about their roles, the keys that make the team successful, and learning about where the feedstock market is heading in the future. My goals for the summer were twofold. The first was to create dynamic dashboards that track several feedstocks in the US, like used cooking oil, corn oil, and animal fats. We incorporated supply and demand data, export figures, and historical prices, and combined them with market research forecasts. This data aggregation allows the Feedstock Growth team to visualize market trends in real time to assist with strategy and decision making. The second goal was to research commercial deep fryers to understand the innovations and technologies that would impact the used cooking oil market in the near future. Fryer companies are advertising reduced oil volume (ROV) fryers that would save restaurants 40%-50% of their cooking oil. I learned that many market dynamics would factor into ROV adsorption rates in the next 3-6 years.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Neste and in Houston. All the employees who worked in the office were really supportive and eager to answer any questions we had. All the interns hung out outside of work and got along really well. A highlight was Food Truck Thursday, where a new food truck would arrive and we’d all race down to try it. The internship also aligned with a visit from the CEO from Finland, and all the interns had a chance to meet him and tell him about our experiences and work progress. I’m now 100% committed to working at a place like Neste after graduating.

To find out more about the Professional Science Master’s in Bioprocessing and Bioenergy, use this link.

CSL Behring Donates a Filter Press to IBRL

In June of 2022, IBRL received a generous donation of a filter press, from CSL Behring. This filter press will help create a more defined product by separating the solids and liquids and help allow multiple client projects to be run simultaneously in IBRL’s pilot plant. Another benefit of the filter press is that it can be tuned to client needs. The new filter press is housed in IBRL. The IBRL staff would like to say thank you to CSL Behring company for your wonderful contribution and cannot wait to use it for our future projects. 

URBANA, Ill. – Fermentation is a crucial manufacturing step for many industries, including food, feed, cosmetics, and fuel. The fermentation process converts agricultural feedstocks to valuable materials with the use of microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria. It provides ingredients for products ranging from meat and dairy substitutes to cosmetics made without animal proteins.

The fermentation field is growing rapidly, and companies need trained employees to manage the equipment and technical processes. That’s why the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL) at the University of Illinois recently shared its expertise on fermentation in an intensive short course for industry practitioners.

The three-day course welcomed 25 participants from 10 companies.

Presenters included IBRL staff, faculty specialists from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and The Grainger College of Engineering, and industry representatives. The course covered topics including types of fermentation, process modeling, and scale-up considerations.

“IBRL’s unique business model of connecting companies with academia and education makes us the perfect host for courses geared toward industry representatives. There is so much knowledge in IBRL and the University of Illinois faculty, and we are helping find new and innovative ways to transfer that knowledge and help more companies grow successfully,” says Vijay Singh, executive director of IBRL and distinguished professor of bioprocessing.

While fermentation courses are offered at other institutions, many of them are mostly theoretical. At IBRL, all participants got hands-on experience running pilot-scale fermentation and downstream purification equipment.

“The hands-on portion of the course was extremely useful. It is far easier to imagine the process when you can see the equipment firsthand,” says Kathryn Kruziki, principal engineer at General Probiotics.

“The course gave a nice range of information from strain development, bench scale fermentation, and transfer to pilot scale. It also discussed practical considerations as you go from pilot to industrial scale, including an extremely useful talk on economic modeling. I felt it covered a lot of ground effectively,” she adds.

General Probiotics, a Minnesota-based startup company, cooperates with IBRL as part of BioMADE, a research program funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. BioMADE encompasses multiple projects and partners conducting research on bio-industrial manufacturing technologies.

“We are developing engineered probiotic bacteria for poultry and are now at a stage in which we need to scale up production for FDA trials and verify the economic feasibility at an industrial scale. We thought the course could be an excellent way for us to progress our know-how in these areas,” Kruziki says. “The course strengthened our confidence in IBRL and our desire to work with them on future projects.”

Several of the companies whose employees attended the course have ongoing collaborations with IBRL, and some are donating equipment or materials.

“CSL Behring is donating a filter press to IBRL, and Primient, a global supplier to the fermentation industry, aids in sourcing critical fermentation substrates in this challenging and ever-evolving economic environment,” Singh says. “We greatly appreciate these industry contributions that help us more effectively support the expanding bioprocessing industry.”

IBRL plans to offer the fermentation course annually. Those interested in participating can contact Beth Conerty, IBRL associate director of business development, at for more information.

Source: Vijay Singh,

Media contacts: Marianne Stein, 217-244-2313,; Beth Conerty, 217-300-4543,

Date: June 2, 2022