Guru Magazine - - Contents -

Star­dust, star­dust ev­ery­where and not a bite to eat… One of the great­est chal­lenges fac­ing NASA to­day is how to de­liver take­out food to as­tro­nauts. Fret not, though, be­cause the world’s bright­est minds have a cun­ning plan for pre­par­ing fresh, in-flight pizza. Food Guru, Natasha Aga­balyan, in­vites you to pick your top­pings on page 12.

We’ve all been there: it’s the end of the week, you’ve just ar­rived home af­ter a post-work drink or two with friends, and you’re feel­ing ever so slightly peck­ish. But when you throw open the re­frig­er­a­tor door, you’re greeted with noth­ing but a mouldy tomato and a half-eaten bur­rito. But don’t de­spair! Food Guru, Natasha Aga­balyan, is on hand to ex­plain how the lat­est re­search from NASA may mean the end of late-night hunger pains – with the press of a but­ton. A 3D printer but­ton, to be pre­cise. If you’re a foodie like me, you strive to get some sort of bal­ance in your ev­ery­day diet – whether it’s nutritional bal­ance (you know, a good choco­late to wine ra­tio), or a diver­sity of tex­tures or tastes. In my kitchen, flour (and oil-cov­ered pots and pans) lit­ters the work sur­faces, ev­i­dence of my failed at­tempts to cre­ate new types of tasty treats. I have yet to per­fect orange-flavoured pies and chilli-in­fused ice cream. Va­ri­ety is most def­i­nitely the spice of my culi­nary life. But now imag­ine for a mo­ment that you’re an as­tro­naut (or sim­ply a bad cook). Three times a day you end up eat­ing the same pre-made, pre-pack­aged food. It won’t be long be­fore you get a lit­tle de­pressed – par­tic­u­larly if you’re just two years into a five-year mis­sion to Mars. At least if you’re a bad cook you have a choice of fast food de­liv­er­ies: our poor as­tro­naut has no hope of a warm pizza. Or does she/he?

Down to earth din­ing

NASA are for­ever push­ing the bound­aries of tech­nol­ogy and they have a habit of in­vent­ing things that ul­ti­mately turn out to be re­mark­ably use­ful. So far, they have brought us so­lar pan­els, wa­ter fil­ters and smart­phone cam­era tech­nol­ogy. Last year they awarded a pres­ti­gious in­no­va­tion and re­search grant of $125,000 to An­jan Con­trac­tor, a me­chan­i­cal engi­neer from Texas, USA. What he’s do­ing with the money is un­usual, to say the least: he’s mak­ing a ma­chine that will ‘print’ food. (I think he re­ally just wants to make a 3D printer to print a choco­late rose to im­press his valen­tine.) An­jan’s am­bi­tious plan to in­ves­ti­gate the po­ten­tial of ‘print­ing’ food in space builds upon ex­ist­ing open-source tech­nol­ogy. Cur­rently, food for as­tro­nauts are mainly pre-pack­aged prod­ucts that have a long shelf-life and don’t need re­frig­er­a­tion or freez­ing. (Space may be the fi­nal fron­tier, but it’s lim­ited on board a space­craft - fridges and freez­ers just don’t fit!) An­jan hopes that 3D print­ing will pro­vide an an­swer to the chal­lenge of pro­vid­ing varied and nu­tri­tious food for as­tro­nauts. His pro­to­type print­ing sys­tem is very space ef­fi­cient, and would free up ship ca­pac­ity for bet­ter uses. Also, the printer uses in­gre­di­ents that are mainly pow­ders and liq­uids, so they have an ex­tremely long shelf life – in some cases up to 30 years. So this in­ven­tion has the po­ten­tial to feed crews on longer, more am­bi­tious mis­sions than any­thing at­tempted to date. Cru­cially, though, their sys­tem prom­ises to truly tickle the taste buds: it of­fers va­ri­ety, not only in nutritional con­tent but in taste and tex­ture. The printer could well of­fer a menu that ac­com­mo­dates ev­ery as­tro­naut’s likes and dis­likes. Plus, there’s not much wash­ing up. Now that should put a smile on their faces!

Printed to per­fec­tion

So how does this tasty in­ven­tion work? An­jan’s com­pany, Sys­tems and Ma­te­ri­als Re­search Cor­po­ra­tion (SMRC), has di­vided out the three el­e­ments of food – nutritional value, taste, and tex­ture – into sep­a­rate parts of the 3D print­ing process. The ba­sic food nu­tri­ents (i.e. pro­tein, starch and fat) can be printed us­ing un­flavoured pow­ders to give sus­te­nance. Low

vol­ume mi­cronu­tri­ents (vi­ta­mins, min­er­als, etc) and flavour­ings are added to mod­ify the taste – and the print­ing process also has the ca­pa­bil­ity to shape th­ese in­gre­di­ents into a va­ri­ety of tex­tures. All the pow­dered in­gre­di­ents are stored in dry ster­ile con­tain­ers from which they are fed di­rectly to the printer. At the print head, the pow­dered ‘inks’ are mixed with wa­ter or oil (just as in an inkjet printer) to hope­fully cre­ate the per­fect dish. The fin­ished prod­uct even comes out hot too! For the nu­tri­tion­ally-minded amongst you, this sys­tem also has the po­ten­tial to rev­o­lu­tionise spe­cific di­etary re­quire­ments. The de­vel­op­ers point out that not all peo­ple re­quire the same bal­ance of nu­tri­ents: a sports­man may need more pro­tein; a preg­nant woman needs more iron; and older peo­ple need a com­pletely dif­fer­ent bal­ance of nu­tri­ents to ei­ther of th­ese. The 3D printer can cre­ate a mul­ti­tude of taste and tex­ture com­bi­na­tions that can be tai­lored to spe­cific nutritional or health needs. And while it is ex­tremely im­por­tant for as­tro­nauts in space to bal­ance their di­ets, the com­pany is high­light­ing the uses their 3D food printer could have in ev­ery­one’s house­hold. Add to that the po­ten­tial for this tech­nol­ogy to help tackle ever-ris­ing food costs and global food scarcity, and you’ve got your­self a truly mar­ketable prod­uct!

Get­ting a slice of the ac­tion: print your own pizza

To show off the power of his in­ven­tion, An­jan Con­trac­tor goes back to ba­sics: pizza. (Now that’s a food­stuff we can all as­so­ci­ate with!) At the re­cent SXSW Eco con­fer­ence in Austin, Texas, he demon­strated how his printer first prints a layer of dough, then a tomato base, be­fore fin­ish­ing with a cheese top­ping. The pizza is printed di­rectly on a hot plate, which bakes it dur­ing the print­ing process. The Phase I project is cur­rently in its early stages and NASA is still years away from test­ing th­ese prod­ucts on an ac­tual flight. But given its ver­sa­til­ity, th­ese de­vices may be com­ing to your kitchen sooner than you think. No one has yet tasted the fa­mous printed pizza An­jan has cre­ated be­cause the US Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FDA) need to first ap­prove the ar­ti­fi­cial food for con­sumer use. How­ever, other com­pa­nies are al­ready work­ing on sim­i­lar prin­ters that you could take home. A start-up in Barcelona, Nat­u­ral Ma­chines, has been de­vel­op­ing a pro­to­type 3D printer that can (ap­par­ently) make a pretty de­cent pizza. Neatly dubbed the Foo­d­ini, it can even make cook­ies, choco­late and ravi­oli (see a video here). Re­gard­less of the de­vice that makes it to mar­ket first, it sounds like the food printer could be the must-have kitchen gad­get of 2020. And while the food may be a bit weird-look­ing, I don’t care, so long as it helps me to per­fect those red cab­bage prof­iteroles I’ve been work­ing on…

More in­for­ma­tion

The RepRap web­site The project pro­posal to NASA An­jan’s Youtube page BBC re­port on the Foo­d­ini


BE­LOW RIGHT: A pizza be­ing made by the Foo­d­ini.

RIGHT: A pizza printed on the SMRC ma­chine at the SXSW Eco con­fer­ence.

Natasha Aga­balyan is a lab sci­en­tist and bud­ding chef who loves to ex­plore the sci­ence be­hind what she puts in the pot. Hold­ing a PhD in cell biology, she left her home in Brighton, UK, to con­tinue her con­quest for a No­bel Prize in Cal­gary, Canada. In be­tween drink­ing ex­ces­sive amounts of cof­fee and blog­ging at The Sci­ence In­for­mant, she likes to geek out with an episode or ten of Star Trek. You can fol­low her on twit­ter at @SciencIn­for­mant.

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