Jane Jetson pushes a few buttons on the food-a-rac-a-cycle and there’s dinner for four. No shopping, no chopping, no sauté pans to wash.
We got a little closer to that futuristic fantasy last week when NASA announced funding for the construction of a 3D food printer. NASA has scheduled the delivery of its first 3D printer to the International Space Station for late 2014. Initially it will just be running experiments on printing in a microgravity environment, but eventually the astronauts will use it to fabricate their own meals.
How is it possible to print food?
A 3D printer works a lot like an inkjet printer. Instead of ink, a food printer sprays edible liquids out of the print nozzles, and it keeps spraying layer upon layer until it’s built up a solid object. Take pizza, which the NASA contractor plans as the first printed meal in space: the ‘ink’ nozzles start the recipe by printing consecutive layers of liquid pizza dough; a switch to sauce cartridges and the printer applies layers of a tomato base; then cheese and toppings are printed on top of the crust and tomatoes, and the whole thing bakes on a heated surface of the printer.
Maybe it sounds better when you’re in orbit 230 miles from Earth.
An astronaut’s mother could transmit a favorite recipe to the Space Station’s pantry of powdered and pureed foods and flavorings that would be 3D printable in infinite combinations. Sure, the ingredients are limited to reconstituted liquids and other sprayable and extrudable consistencies, and the ground beef in Mom’s meatloaf has been replaced with a laboratory-cultured, 3D printable meat stand-in known as ‘shmeat’, but with their tiny larder of freeze-dried foods and only occasional access to fresh ingredients, it gives the astronauts a taste of home to break the tedium and cabin fever.
It won’t be replacing Pizza Hut anytime soon.
I’d hang on to those takeout menus. Nobody expects that 3D printed food will replace the real deal for most of us, but there are some promising Earthbound applications.
3D printers can match nutrition like regular printers match colors.
Think of the way that CMYK four color printing takes four ink colors-cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black)-and applies them in pre-set proportions to create a a particular palette. A 3D printer can use nutrients like colors, and print them in specific proportions to create customized, nutritionally-appropriate meals. Data-driven food can factor height, weight, body mass index, and exercise regimens to tailor calories, proteins, enzymes, and minerals to dieters or athletes, or use health records and lab results to create sterile printed meals infused with medication for hospital patients.
Meat can’t sustainably feed the planet, but printable meat substitutes can.
A steak doesn’t have to be printed from beef protein. The ‘inks’ could be made from other protein sources like algae, insects, or lab-grown meat analogs that don’t take the same environmental toll as raising cattle. The meat ink is also shelf stable for years and can be shipped anywhere on the planet where need exists.
Solving world hunger and customizing nutrition are still a long way off.
For now 3D printed food is just a novelty used to create previously unachievable food textures and shapes. There’s an edible desk lamp and a bacon mobius strip; you can get a full body scan to replicate yourself in gummy bear candy or render your beloved’s face in chocolate for a Valentine’s Day bonbon; and Google’s employees can order any shape or flavor of pasta printed in the kitchen of the company cafeteria.
When the 3D printing revolution comes, you’ll be able to eat it.