To combat hunger in space and on Earth, NASA funds 3D food printer
Many astronauts have PhDs, perhaps a military honor or two, maybe even a history in combat — but cooking? This is apparently a bridge too far, and while astronauts don’t have nearly as much free time in space as we might assume (probably a good thing, for mental health reasons), time is the least of the reasons NASA is looking to change our relationship with food. The space agency recently awarded a $125,000 grant to a project aimed at 3D printing food for astronauts, and while the space agency’s main concern is efficient food storage for long-haul space flights, creator Anjan Contractor hopes his technology could help people here on Earth get access to the volume and variety of food they need.
Thinking about mechanized food creation in space, comparisons to Star Trek‘s replicator immediately spring to mind, but it’s worth noting that in this case both the printer and the software are relatively old hat (by the standards of the spanking-new 3D printing industry). Contractor is planning to use the RepRap 3D printer, an open-source design that was originally intended to build its own parts from scratch — a replicator in the Darwinian sense, if not the Roddenberrian. In the plan, a NASA-modified RepRap printer will be fitted with several culinary building blocks, from oil to protein powder, then mixed and deposited.
Amazingly, the new research kitchen’s first order is for pizza. For a first project, it’s certainly ambitious, involving not just many ingredients, but ingredients that must be mixed and cooked differently, at different times. This makes sense, since printing lends itself most easily to layer-based foods like pizza, but it’s still an ambitious project; they’re not starting with 3D-printed Jell-o, by any means. The printer will mix and deposit a layer of dough and cook this layer before putting down the next. Tomato sauce will be made from powder, water, and oil. Follow this with a slightly less appetizing “protein layer” and you’ve got pizza. It has no real cheese, nor meat, but for astronauts who are used to freeze-dried rations and non-perishable snacks, it could be a mouthwatering change of pace.
Embedded below is the simple chocolate printer that won Contractor this NASA small business award.
Doing it this way lets NASA keep foodstuffs under pressure, and unlike traditional canning the 3D printer can extrude only the amount needed for a single meal while keeping the rest safely sequestered. The ISS has already categorized many dozen types of bacteria brought up to space, but food decay is a slightly smaller issue in an environment that can be scrubbed once, sent to space, and assumed to be under perfect quarantine. The third world, however, has no such luxuries, and Contractor claims that by dehydrating foods to powders we can increase their shelf-life to as much as 30 years — perfect for trips to Mars, or preservation in quick-rotting environments like Africa, South America, and Asia.
Turning recipes into open-source code could allow for dynamic recipe creation; input your sex, age, weight, etc. and watch as the software not only creates a pizza balanced just for your nutritional needs, but prints it for you. Protein sources could be anything form all-American corn to all-African insects to all-Asian algae — and that’s the point.
Contractor thinks a 3D printer should be a fixture of every kitchen, though, not just those in space or in rural Zimbabwe. After all, 3D printing is a versatile enough system that it could just as easily be incorporated into cooking as replace it entirely, perhaps laying a thin coat of nutrient gel onto a half-finished dish. If that doesn’t sound too appetizing, just wait until the current projections for food availability start coming of age — we might be eating 3D-printed insect protein faster than you think.
By Graham Templeton | ExtremeTech