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3-D Printers Could Make Food for Astronauts

Several decades from now, an astronaut in a Mars colony might feel a bit hungry. Rather than reach for a vacuum-sealed food packet or cook up some simple greenhouse vegetables in a tiny kitchen, the astronaut would visit a microwave-sized box, punch a few settings, and receive a delicious and nutritious meal tailored to his or her exact tastes.

This is the promise of the rapidly maturing field of 3-D food printing, an offshoot of the revolution that uses machines to build bespoke items out of metal, plastic, and even living cells. Sooner than you think, 3-D printed designer meals may be coming to a rocketship, or a restaurant, near you.

“Right now, astronauts on the space station are eating the same seven days of food on rotations of two or three weeks,” said astronautical engineer Michelle Terfansky, who studied the potential and challenges of making 3-D printed food in space for a master’s thesis at the University of Southern California.

With 3-D printers coming of age, engineers are starting to expand the possible list of materials they might work with. The Fab@Home team at Cornell University has developed gel-like substances called hydrocolloids that can be extruded and built up into different shapes. By mixing in flavoring agents, they can produce a range of tastes and textures.

A 3-D printer could mix vitamins and amino acids into a meal to provide nutrients and boost productivity. There are limitations to the types of fresh foods that can be grown in space – NASA says some of the best crops for a Mars mission are lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes. With that you could make a salad, but a 3-D printer could manufacture croutons or protein-dense supplements. The device could take up less space than a supply of packets of food and, because each item is custom built, would help cut down on waste.

But 3-D food printing systems still have a long way to go, with most of the current limitations involving the printer’s extruding system. Some items, like frosting or processed cheese, are easy to make printable. A chocolate treat, for instance, is created using a syringe filled with melted chocolate to build up a shape specified by a computer layer by layer. But other materials – fruits, vegetables, and meats – are much more of a challenge. 

In the earliest tests of the hydrocolloid 3-D food printer, the Cornell team produced different fake items — bananas, mushrooms, mozzarella – all with the appropriate texture and flavor. Because no one wants to eat something that looks and tastes bad, Terfansky said the best thing would be to focus on making sure things are delicious and then improving the visual aesthetics.

Within five to 10 years, she said the technology might get to the point where a single printer could produce lots of different food items that are both flavorful and look like what they’re supposed to be. Terfansky sees a day further in the future when most home kitchens include a 3-D printer simple enough for a child to go up and press the “hamburger” button in order to receive a meal. Such plans may seem like the food machine from The Jetsons but other researchers say they’re not out of the realm of possibility.

Source: Wired Science

Awesome.