NASA could take 3D food printing to Mars, and beyond

The agency wants to test 3D food printing for long space flights, a plan that could have larger implications down the road.

NASA is investing $125,000 to bring 3D printing somewhere it's never been before: into the kitchen.

We've all seen the replicator from “Star Trek.” You just walk up to it and say something like (in your best Jean-Luc Picard voice) “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” And presto, it makes a perfect cup for you.

NASA would love to have something like that, but will have to start with a more basic model. That's where Anjan Contractor and his company, Systems and Materials Research Corporation, come into play. They showed NASA a demo of a food-based 3D printer making a chocolate pastry, and that got them a six-month, $125,000 grant to build a complete prototype system.

NASA is interested in this because the substrate used by the printer could be stored as a dry powder. So there might be one tube for the printer filled with sugar, another with protein powder, another with specific dried foods and several with flavoring ingredients. Stored in the right conditions, the raw materials, the stuff the printer needs to make food, might be good for 30 years.

In its proposal summary, NASA says the idea is to “test a complete nutritional system for long duration missions beyond low Earth orbit,” which, theoretically at least, could include an eventual manned mission to Mars. NASA also notes that a successful 3D food printer also could be used by the military, providing optimal nutrition to warfighters while cutting down on logistical challenges and waste.

Printing out a food item on the printer, anything from a hot dog to a chocolate cake, would simply be a two-fold process. First, the powdered fuel would need to be reconstituted with the right amount of water and in the right ratios. Apparently the food can be baked as its being reconstituted.

Then it would need to be sprayed out of the nozzle in a pattern to shape the food item into whatever it's supposed to look like, or at least into something edible. That second part is almost no different than how other 3D printers work when building a model from a CAD file out of ABS plastic or harder substrates. In this case, you just eat the finished product.

NASA struggles with how to keep astronauts alive in space, but also how to keep them happy. Eating the type of food one might pack for a long campout would get very old after a few weeks. Eating the same thing for years on end might be maddening. So a machine that can prepare different kinds of food and still maintain a nutritional balance has a lot of appeal. In fact, pizza is on NASA’s early menu, because it’s made in layers, which would be conducive to printing. It would depend on the quality of the ingredients, but it would probably be no worse than eating at most cafeterias.

On a large scale, NASA and Contractor envision food printers helping to end hunger around the world. NASA’s summary notes that the world’s population is expected to reach 12 billion by the end of the century, and that effective 3D printing of food, “may avoid food shortage, inflation, starvation, famine and even food wars.”

Contractor told Quartz that if a cheap food base, the tubes of fuel and flavoring, could be loaded up and printed out in homes, it not only would it eliminate waste, but go a long way toward stopping hunger too. Though it might take some getting used to, the current unchecked population boom might create a real need for something like a food printer.

“I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can’t supply 12 billion people sufficiently,” Contractor told Quartz. “So we eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food.”

Contractor says he will keep the software that drives his food printer open-source — his design uses the RepRap open-source printer — so that people can look at the code, see how the machine works and create their own food recipes.

I don't think Contractor's vision of our food future is all that bad. I'd really like to be able to print out a nice dinner without having to fire up the stove or head out to the store, other than to occasionally refill my food printer's bins. As long as I can create potato chips along with all the healthy fare, I think I'll be happy. Oh, and a cup of hot Earl Grey tea would be lovely too, if that's not too much to ask.

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