MAKE MINE A PEPPERONI!
HOW TO PRINT YOUR OWN DREAM MEAL
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…
The RepRap website The project proposal to NASA Anjan’s Youtube page BBC report on the Foodini
NATASHA AGABALYAN• FOOD GURU
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.