NASA Bites On 3D-Printed Food: Automatic Pizza Assembly Machine Could Fuel Astronauts To Mars

 @rpalmerscience on May 21 2013 4:08 PM

What's your preferred pizza style -- New York, Chicago deep dish or 3D-printed?

Mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor and his company, Systems & Materials Research Corporation, just got $125,000 from NASA to make a prototype of a universal food synthesizer in six months, Quartz reported on Tuesday. Contractor got NASA’s attention with a chocolate printer (see the video below), but his first attempt at 3D printing food for the space agency will likely be a pizza, because it’s a food that’s made in distinct layers.

The pizza-making version of the machine, which hasn't been built yet, would print a doughy base that would bake on a hot plate beneath. Next would come a layer of tomato sauce, constituted from tomato powder, water and oil. The topping would be a “protein layer,” the main ingredient of which is yet to be determined. It might not sound especially appetizing to us here on the ground, but for an astronaut whose only other option is dehydrated mystery meat, it could be little slice of heaven.

Plus, the ingredients would be able to stay edible for a long while.

“Long distance space travel requires 15-plus years of shelf life,” Contractor told Quartz. “The way we are working on it is, all the carbs, proteins and macro and micro nutrients are in powder form. We take moisture out, and in that form it will last maybe 30 years.”

The 3D food printer could have bigger applications further down the road.

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

One big way that food might change is the introduction of new sources of protein, like beet leaves, algae, grass and, yes, insects. The United Nations recently released a report recommending that Western countries start adapting their diets to include more insects. Research has shown that mealworms, for instance, are a more sustainable source of protein than beef, chicken, milk or pork, requiring less land to raise and creating fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

But even with insects readily available (especially this year, with the cicada invasion on the East Coast), people in the U.S. are reticent to munch on worm burgers and algae hot dogs. 3D printing could be a way to help make such foodstuffs palatable to the American tastebuds.

3D-printed food could also be tailored to an individual diner. It’s easy to imagine the possibilities: For a person with celiac disease, the printer could make a pizza with gluten-free “ink.” Vegetarians could get their printed pizza with algae topping instead of ground-up worms. Vitamins tailored to women, children or the elderly could be mixed in with the food ink.

Meals could also be customized based on their nutritional value. If you’re on a diet, your local donut shop could print you up a low-calorie version of your morning bear claw. Your after-work cookie could be made with extra fiber, if you need it.

"Once you have the automatic collection of what you’re eating and when, you can predict -- based off your activity levels, your planned diet and your health records -- exactly how much and what types of food you should be eating. That’s really ultimately the long-term potential of food printing," Cornell University researcher Jeffrey Lipton said at the Inside 3D Printing conference in April, according to the Huffington Post. "It’s going to be about this automated production of food where you have the entire cloud of information helping to guide you forward."

But keep in mind that at present, 3D printing is pretty slow. You might have to wait an hour or more for that pizza or bear claw. Hopefully, by the time we're sending people into space or chowing down on bugs, the technology will have gotten a bit faster. Given the exponential growth that 3D printing's experienced in recent years, it's definitely feasible.

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