The year is 2021 and one of Sydney’s most popular breweries is decked in fluorescent green tanks. It looks surreal but isn’t born out of mere love for sci-fi movies, but rather out of a commitment to the future in the fight against climate change.
Partnering with scientists from the Climate Change Cluster (C3) at the University of Technology Sydney, Young Henrys, a craft brewery based in Newtown, has found a way to make beer brewing a more carbon-neutral process. Installing 400-litre bioreactors on-grounds, a small corner of their brewery is doused in fluorescent green illuminating out of transparent cylinders that don’t come in contact with any other fermenters. Is it Midori? Absinthe, perhaps? Nope, just algae with the potential of saving our planet one beer at a time.
Despite accounting for only 1/60th of the biomass of plants, algae is credited with producing half of the world’s oxygen via photosynthesis. In this regard, every second breath you take is being powered by the likes of kelp, spirulina and nori. In addition, algae ingests CO2 to multiply—in turn making it an ideal ingredient in food, pharmaceuticals and bio-plastics.
There are two main types of algae: macro-algae, which consists of kelp and seaweeds, and micro-algae (also known as phytoplankton) which are tiny, microscopic plants that can grow both in fresh and saltwater. Young Henrys’ bioreactors contain the latter. Each millilitre of the 400-litre cylinders contain roughly 5 million micro-algae cells or individual organisms. This totals up to 2,400 trillion cells per cylinder—producing the same amount of oxygen as one hectare of Australian forest.
“70 per cent of the planet is water and that’s where the phytoplankton are growing,” said Professor Peter Ralph from the University of Technology Sydney to the BBC. “So one of the things that we can do to address climate change is to actually use algae to capture the CO2.” In the same interview, Oscar McMahon, one of the co-founders of the brewery, explained how Young Henrys taps algae’s potential as a “biochemical factory” to offset carbon emissions that arise as a byproduct of the brewing process to release oxygen instead.
The process can be broken down as follows: brewer’s yeast eats sugar to create alcohol and CO2 as a byproduct. This CO2 is then captured off the top of a beer fermenter and fed through the bioreactors which house micro-algae. “The algae eats CO2 to create more algae and release oxygen,” McMahon said. “So they become these yin and yang organisms that naturally balance each other out.”
Feeding algae one of the deadliest byproducts of the brewing process stops it from being released back into the atmosphere. This is a gamechanger considering how the carbon emissions from fermenting just one pack of beer takes a tree 48 hours to absorb. “That’ll be like knocking down a city block and planting trees and letting them grow for 20 years. And that’s something that can be made in our warehouse within weeks,” McMahon added, stressing its potential of becoming a mindblowing solution for the urban environment.
So what about its other byproduct: more algae? According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Young Henrys plans to use the additional algae to produce food, pharmaceuticals and bio-plastic, with help from folks over at the University of Technology Sydney’s Deep Green Biotech Hub. Doctor Janice McCauley, a research fellow at UTS, said the hub “strongly advocates” the use of algae more effectively than traditional crops. “Algae uses carbon dioxide from the air to create carbohydrates and oxygen, just like plants do, but at the moment, lots of things are really at their limits,” she said to The Sunday Morning Herald. “We’re currently utilising most of our arable land at the moment, but algae can be grown almost anywhere.”
Although micro-algae is already being used in the mussel and oyster industry, McCauley highlighted certain challenges including the dewatering process and the cost of growing them. “They’re microscopic organisms and this comes at a cost and an engineering challenge we need to face,” she added.
Credited as the first innovation towards carbon-neutral beers, McMahon hopes the bioreactors would encourage other breweries to cut their own carbon emissions. “The planet needs our help but the solutions are here now,” Professor Ralph added. “This is just the very, very beginning.”
In November 2019, European startup Space Cargo Unlimited launched an unusual payload to the International Space Station (ISS). Among 8,200 pounds of research and crew supplies were 12 bottles of the finest Bordeaux wine, left undisturbed at a constant temperature of 18 degrees Celsius. 14 months later, the ‘space-aged’ cargo orbited back—literally bottling up insights that could help develop innovative solutions for the future of food and agriculture on Earth.
On 2 November 2019, Space Cargo Unlimited launched a cargo consisting of 12 bottles of Petrus 2000 aboard a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket that successfully docked with the ISS. Dubbed ‘WISE’ (Winegrape In Space Experiment), the mission was the first privately led, applied-research project seeking to study the effects of microgravity and space radiation on the ageing process of wine.
The 12 bottles shuttled up were sealed in CommuBioS canisters (to avoid breaking upon re-entry into the Earth’s surface) and stored at a constant temperature of 18 degrees Celsius to let the interior biological environment of the bottles do their work. Wine samples from the same batch were then taken and aged simultaneously on Earth to compare them with the ISS shipment after its triumphant return.
After a little over a year (438 days and 19 hours to be exact), the cargo safely landed back in the Gulf of Mexico on 14 January 2021. However, the bottles—along with all of their secrets—weren’t popped open until a wine tasting in March. Held at the ISVV (Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin) in Bordeaux, the event was the first step of analysis, promised to be “unlike any other wine tasting on Earth.” A panel of 12 professionals was gathered to taste and describe the terrestrial and space wine according to various visual, gustatory, and olfactory criteria.
For the first part of the test, panellists were given three glasses of wine, not knowing which one contained the wine from space. Visual and olfactory criteria were evaluated at this stage as many panellists admitted to spotting a difference in the evolution of colour in one of them. For the second part, the panellists carried out a comparative tasting of the wines.
“Unanimously, the two wines were considered to be great wines—which means that despite the 14-month stay on ISS, the ‘space wine’ was still very well evaluated sensorially,” explained Professor Philippe Darriet, director of the Oenology Research Unit at ISVV. Darriet noted the remarkable differences in the colour, aroma, and taste between the two wines in a press conference. According to wine writer and panellist Jane Anson, the wine that aged at the International Space Station “was really maybe one to two or even three years further evolved than you would expect from the one that had remained on Earth.”
“It’s hard for me to say if it was better or worse. But it was definitely different,” she told the BBC. “The aromatics were more floral and more smoky—the things that would happen anyway to Petrus as it gets older.” Anson further explained how Petrus was the smartest choice of wine to be sent into space, given its prestigious reputation and ability to age. “There aren’t that many wines that can genuinely age for 60, 70, longer years and Petrus is one of them,” she said, speculating whether the zero gravity or the journey to, from and around the Earth affected the wine.
Out of the 12 bottles, three were opened for the wine tasting as part of the first phase of analysis. While eight others are currently undergoing extensive research expected to span a couple of years, the last bottle is now being auctioned at Christie’s. The space-aged Petrus is up for sale in a ‘celestial chest’, handcrafted by Ateliers Victor. It is also sold alongside an Earth-aged bottle for comparison. Proceeds of the sale would fund future space missions—offering collectors an opportunity to acquire a piece of space history while contributing to the ongoing research.
The dozen bottles of Petrus, however, weren’t shuttled up out of mere curiosity. Let’s start with the concept of gravity here. Gravity is the only parameter of life that has remained unchanged over the past 4.5 billion years. Recreating an Earth-like environment with near-zero gravity, such as on the International Space Station, offers a unique research framework to better understand how key components of wine—including grapes, yeast and bacteria—respond to weightlessness. This could essentially help scientists develop technology to grow more resilient plants back on Earth.
But why wine? When it comes to climate change, wines are said to be very sensitive to the fluctuations at play on Earth and are early indicators of the wider challenges faced. Wine is also sensitive to its environment during the ageing process—with different ageing environments leading to different flavours. According to Space Cargo Unlimited’s blog post, Mission WISE is an effort “following in the footsteps of Louis Pasteur,” who developed pasteurisation through experiments with wine fermentation. The startup thereby hopes the experiments would produce results that could have broader applications across food preservation and related technologies.
“Our goal is to tackle the solution of how we’re going to have an agriculture tomorrow that is both organic and healthy and able to feed humanity, and we think space has the key,” said Nicolas Gaume, CEO and co-founder of Space Cargo Unlimited, to The Associated Press. According to the startup, findings from the experiment could also be used to understand taste enhancement and flavour conservation on Earth.
Along with insights into space fermentation, mission WISE also symbolises the first tentative step towards establishing space-based commerce. Labelling the startup’s funding plan as the ‘Medici model’, Quartz highlighted how Space Cargo Unlimited’s research will be “paid for in part by a luxury goods partnership that will deliver a customised chest full of objects flown to space to ultra-wealthy sponsors, called patrons, who back the project.” Mission WISE ultimately participates in the transition of making space a place for business—with venture capitals, return on investment and profits. Although such ‘space PR stunts’ seem gimmicky, they might just help fund the future of space travel.
And with research suggesting how red wine could help fight the health effects of weightlessness among astronauts, findings from this experiment might just have the potential of whipping together a recipe for synthetic cocktails. Space tourists of the future, here we come!