|Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755 – 1826), the French lawyer and gastronome who said "tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are."|
by Brian Orlotti
3D printing is riding high these days. As most recently outlined in the December 23rd, 2012 post "3D Printers, Additive Manufacturing, Aston Martins & Star Trek Replicators," the process has already begun a revolution in the aerospace world with the advent of 3D printed aircraft & spacecraft parts, robots and hand tools. Now, this technology promises to not only make the ships that will take us to space, but also sustain the people who live there.
This past May, NASA announced it was awarding a $125,000 USD research grant to Anjan Contractor, a senior mechanical engineer at Austin, Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC) to develop a 3D food printer. NASA’s interest in developing the technology is for more efficient storage of food for astronauts on the ISS or on long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars.
3D printers work on similar principles to inkjet printers. Cartridges or reels containing the print materials (be they ink, plastic, or food components) are fed into a motorized printer head. Inside the printer head is a heating element and a nozzle. As the printing material is fed into the printer head, it is melted into liquid by the heating element. The printer head then moves around in a programmed pattern derived from a CAD file, squirting the printing material out of its nozzle onto a build platform. As the build material is deposited, the build platform is lowered millimeter by millimeter. Layer by layer, the finished object emerges. In this way, physical objects are born of digital data.
|Plastic 3D manufactured pizza display created using templates available online at Exchange3D.com. To make something edible, simply replace the inedible plastic components with the appropriate culinary building blocks.|
SMRC’s first attempt at printed food will be pizza, a logical goal since it’s a layered food. It’s also an ambitious goal as pizza not only comprises many ingredients, but ingredients that must be mixed and cooked differently at different times. SMRC’s modified RepRap printer will have material cartridges containing various culinary building blocks like cooking oils, protein powders, carb powders, powdered sauces, etc. The printer will mix and deposit a layer of dough and cook this layer before laying down the next. Tomato sauce will be made from powder, water, and oil. After this will be a "protein layer" in lieu of cheese, ending with a whole pizza cooked by built-in heating elements. The final product will have no real cheese (or meat), but for astronauts used to freeze-dried, non-perishable food, it could be a delectable change of pace.
In space-based applications, 3D printed food would have distinct advantages over traditional space food:
- Since most or all of the ingredients would be stored in powder form, food would have extended shelf life. Anjan Contractor claims that by dehydrating foods to powders, shelf-life can be increased to as much as 30 years.
- Food printers would use only the materials needed for a single meal while keeping the rest safely stored, virtually eliminating waste and spoilage.
- Storing recipes as digital data would allow for on-the-fly food customization. A food printer’s software could take your personal data like sex, age, weight, etc. and create a pizza balanced for your specific nutritional needs. Food printers could even take existing recipes and remake them into more nutritious versions by substituting healthier fats and oils, adjusting sugar and salt levels or even swapping out different types of protein (from sources as diverse as corn, soy, or even algae).
|3D chocolate printer, developed at the University of Exeter in the UK, as outlined in the July 9th, 2013 Pokono blog post "Deliciously tasty 3D printing..."|
Before any of this can happen, of course, much R&D (and trial & error) will need to take place. 3D printing technology (culinary and otherwise) is still very much in its infancy. We may not see its effects for decades. As it was with computers, 3D printing’s effects on our society will be gradual…but profound.
There may come a day when a space traveler staring out the window of their ship, their thoughts adrift, turns their head and casually utters words that beautifully bridge fantasy and reality, “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot."