Regular readers of PS are aware that we have covered many news items of late involving the remarkably versatile technology known as 3D printing/rapid prototyping in which 3D computer design software, laser printing and materials science combine to create real (3 dimensional) objects or materials.
This tech has been used to “print” various useful items: solar energy cells, new pharmaceutical compounds (anti-cancer drugs) and even human embryonic stem cells (for organ/tissue replacement therapy). More recently, NASA has considered using 3D printing tech to create composite bricks for moon base building. But many folks reading of such amazing applications have probably also wondered: what about 3D printing food, ala the ‘food replicator’ machine featured frequently on old Star Trek episodes?
Well, wonder no more, as NASA has been thinking along the same lines and has recently invested $125,000.00 in a research company called Systems & Materials Research Cooperation (SMRC) to design a 3D printer capable of printing food — specifically pizza — using 30-year “shelf stable” food stocks.
Why pizza? Well, it’s the one basic food item that has never made it into space (in any form), but, it is also a food that is amenable to how the technology works — by building up 3D objects one layer at a time. Pizza is ideal for this process in that it can be made by layering bread dough, cheese* and sauce — plus “toppings” — sequentially.
However, the food stocks used here will not be ordinary, Earth kitchen ingredients; proteins and carbohydrates will come from “base powders” (like the toner powders in your office printer) derived from grass, algae and insects.
SMRC has even higher hopes for its technology than space; the company feels it’s 3D food printing machine (click link for diagram) will be crucial to providing food security in a predicted future world of 9 billion humans (by 2050).
* If done correctly (for you space foodies): first the dough, then a layer of cheese, followed by the sauce, and then another thinner layer of cheese, which holds everything together. (note: the layering would occur on a heating plate that would then cook the pizza, allowing for the familiar sensation of burning the rook of your mouth from hot, melting cheese)
Watch this super techie video of a prototype, 3D printer/’food replicator’ (here printing chocolate) in action for the first NASA trial (article continues below):
3D Food Printer – The Beginnings and Details:
SMRC (founded by Arjan Contractor) was a recent winner of NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program, in which they did a “mod” of a chocolate printer to build a basic food printer — a feat that duly impressed engineers and officials at NASA.
3D printing has its own long-standing maker community which supports open-source software projects. In this case, SMRC’s design was based on the open-source RepRap 3D printer. Construction of the prototype food replicator will begin in a few weeks but is not scheduled for actual delivery to the ISS until 2014.
The technology is also ‘dual use”: it can be used to fabricate tools and parts needed for, say, any emergency space walk repair mission (which happened recently).
Of course, the tech won’t be practical for making more complicated dishes, like Chicken Cordon Bleu (but it could handle Eggs Benedict), but then, when you’re stuck in LEO with nothing but plastic tubes filled with food paste, actual pizza (however rudimentary) will seem like ambrosia. Also: to provide enough food (calories) for a hungry crew, you’ll need bulk supplies of the key food stock ingredients to be kept on board, taking up precious space.
One other big question: will the technique work in zero (micro) gravity? Tests aboard a Boeing 727 “vomit comet” (courtesy of the Zero G Corporation; test team: Made in Space, Inc.) are underway (see top photo).
Some last food for thought:
So, what if this food replicator merges with artificial intelligence — will smart food replicators someday control the food we eat? Well, for those futurists out there worried about the Vinge ‘Singularity’ (first used by Werner Vinge to describe a super-intelligent “run-away robot” scenario), you may find it unnerving to know that RepRap’s has already made a 3D printer capable of printing itself (‘Mendel’ – named after the 19th Century scientist/monk Gregor Mendel who discovered the principle of inherited traits in plants).
Still, if one is going to be taken over by robots, self-replicating/pizza-printing bots would surely be preferable to the other (scarier) kind.
The RepRap self-replicating printer ‘Mendel”. (Credit: CharlesC under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).