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Trekkies Rejoice! Food Replicators are Coming Soon

June 26, 2013


In the original Star Trek series, meals served to crew members in space came from food synthesizers that, in subsequent Star Trek series, morphed into replicators. The well-stocked space pantry consisted primarily of feedstock that could be combined into all sorts of different foods and taste combinations to suit the various humanoid species that resided in the starship. Laurie Segall writes, “A 3D food printer sounds like something out of Star Trek, but it’s not out of this world.” In fact, when she wrote her article back in 2011, one was already “up and running at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan” and had been in service since 2009. [“This 3D printer makes edible food,” CNN Money, 24 January 2011] She also predicted, “In five years, it could be in your home.” The 3D printer used by the Institute in Manhattan was developed at Cornell University by a group of scientists and students. “The device attaches to a computer,” Segall wrote, “which works as the ‘brain’ behind the technology.”


One of the comments in Segall’s article that fascinated me most came from David Arnold, director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute. “One of the main things I hope this machine will let us do is create new textures that we couldn’t get otherwise,” he told Segall. “This is the first time I’ve really seen this happen.” Normally, the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of food is taste. But, as I noted in a previous post entitled Enjoying Food: Taste, and Our Other Senses, all of our senses play a role in how we perceive the taste of food. If a true replicator is going to be made, then the computer that controls it must contain the right sensory information. Texture is one of those characteristics.


If you think that this subject remains in the realm of science fiction, you’d be wrong. It was recently announced that “NASA and a Texas company are exploring the possibility of using a ‘3D printer’ on deep space missions in a way where the ‘D’ would stand for dining.” [“3D Printing: Food in Space,” Space Travel, 27 May 2013] The first step being undertaken is a feasibility study. The article continues:

“Systems and Materials Research Consultancy will conduct a study for the development of a 3D printed food system for long duration space missions. Phase I SBIR proposals are very early stage concepts that may or may not mature into actual systems. This food printing technology may result in a phase II study, which still will be several years from being tested on an actual space flight.”

Although there remains a debate about whether manned space exploration is necessary, at this point in time, NASA doesn’t want to preclude any option. If the decision is made to launch a manned mission to Mars, for example, then feeding the astronauts on that long voyage becomes a real challenge. The article explains:

“NASA’s Advanced Food Technology program is interested in developing methods that will provide food to meet safety, acceptability, variety, and nutritional stability requirements for long exploration missions, while using the least amount of spacecraft resources and crew time. The current food system wouldn’t meet the nutritional needs and five-year shelf life required for a mission to Mars or other long duration missions. Because refrigeration and freezing require significant spacecraft resources, current NASA provisions consist solely of individually prepackaged shelf stable foods, processed with technologies that degrade the micronutrients in the foods. Additionally, the current space food is selected before astronauts ever leave the ground and crew members don’t have the ability to personalize recipes or really prepare foods themselves. Over long duration missions, a variety of acceptable food is critical to ensure crew members continue to eat adequate amounts of food, and consequently, get the nutrients they need to maintain their health and performance.”

As you can imagine, there are a number of challenges that must be met. What kind of materials will be used as feedstock for the 3D printer? How will they be stored? What combinations of feedstock can be used to create new recipes? How do you incorporate things like taste, aroma, and texture? The article concludes:

“NASA recognizes in-space and additive manufacturing offers the potential for new mission opportunities, whether ‘printing’ food, tools or entire spacecraft. Additive manufacturing offers opportunities to get the best fit, form and delivery systems of materials for deep space travel. This’s why NASA is a leading partner in the president’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation and the Advanced Manufacturing Initiative. 3D printing is just one of the many transformation technologies that NASA is investing in to create the new knowledge and capabilities needed to enable future space missions while benefiting life here on Earth.”

Getting back to “life here on earth,” Jeffrey Lipton, a PhD candidate at Cornell, and Hod Lipson, a professor at Cornell’s Creative Machines Lab, provide an update to Segall’s story about their 3D food printer project. [“Adventures in Printing Food,” IEEE Spectrum, 31 May 2013] They note that the project actually began back in 2005 as the Fab@Home project. A video, which accompanied Segall’s story, shows the machine in action at the French Culinary Institute and contains a brief interview with Lipton.


Lipton and Lipson report that one of the first individuals to use their 3D food printer outside of a research lab was a high school student named Noy Schaal. She built one of the machines, adapted it to print chocolate delights, and won first prize at a local science fair after she “printed chocolate letters, textured bars, and other shapes directly from a computer-aided-design (CAD) model and then handed them to the judges.” Among the early foods that were experimented with (in addition to chocolate and the ingredients discussed in the video) are hummus, peanut butter, Brie and apricot comfiture, and Cheez Whiz. Lipton and Lipson continue:

“While a paste-based diet may have sufficed for the early astronauts, it’s too limited for most people. For digital cooking to really catch on, we concluded, the printers needed to accommodate a larger range of recipes, ingredients, and cooking temperatures. Getting the printers to operate at the right temperatures for different types of food is not easy. Food, unlike plastic, can change dramatically over a relatively short period of time: A batch of frosting made in the morning may work fine at one temperature, but the same batch later in the day may not. Now consider the huge array of possible ingredients and the different settings that each would need, and you can see why creating a truly useful home food printer seemed at first impossible.”

And, if you think that an earthbound printer seemed impossible, you can see why a space-based one was unthinkable. Lipton and Lipson report, however, that a Cornell University graduate student named Daniel Cohen had an idea. They continue:

“What was needed, he thought, was the equivalent of an RGB standard for food. RGB stands for red, green, and blue, the basic color elements used in televisions to reproduce a rainbow of colors; a similar set of basic colors—cyan, magenta, and yellow—are used in inkjet printers. Cohen’s idea was to create a similarly standard set of elements for the food printer that would make it simpler to produce a variety of foods—and also allow you to share your designs, so that you could ‘send’ a piece of cake to your uncle’s printer.”

The problem, of course, was finding the food equivalent of RGB. Remarkably, Lipton and Lipson report they “didn’t have to look far.” They explain:

“A huge industry already exists to devise food flavors and colors that can make just about anything look and taste like something else. Supplements like vitamins, minerals, and fibers are also widely available. The only problem, then, was getting the right texture. For that we turned to hydrocolloids—materials like carrageenan, xanthan gum, and gum arabic—that today appear on many food labels. They’re the thickeners in McDonald’s milkshakes, for instance. We brought in other gelling agents like those used in Jell-O desserts. We were already familiar with some of these substances, having used them to help print living cells. This time, we mixed the gels and gumming agents with other ingredients and then put them through our printer to create edible constructs like cubes of milk, raspberry domes, and mushroom-shaped bananas.”

Lipton and Lipson admit that some of their concoctions were “a little too weird” to be accepted by the masses. But the concept was proven. The exciting thing about this technology is that it opens up new possibilities for feeding the world. Lipton and Lipson explain:

“Researchers at TNO (the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research), are extracting basic carbohydrates, proteins, and nutrients from algae, insects, and the like and then using them to print something resembling steak and chicken. Eventually, this may allow them to print a filet mignon from a protein that requires far less water, energy, and labor than does a cow. TNO isn’t the only place exploring this realm. Susana Soares at London South Bank University has used a flour made from crushed bugs to print edible objects that look like butterfly wings and honeycombs. While this approach could someday solve the Malthusian concerns of food production, it’s a hard idea to swallow. The trend these days is to back away from highly processed foods.”

While the idea may be hard to swallow today, attitudes change with circumstances. There have been a number of stories in the news as of late about the food qualities of insects. Making them palatable for most people is the challenge. Food printing may prove to be part of the answer. Currently, however, Lipton and Lipson are partnering with world-class chefs to take existing foods and mold them into interesting shapes using their printer. They report, “Using the printer to creatively customize food shapes, we discovered, is a lot more appealing than crafting milk cubes out of hydrocolloids.” They have also been able to create cookies that have a written message inside. They conclude:

“Digital cooking is still a nascent field, but we’re amazed at how much progress has already been made: From those humble peanut butter, hummus, and chocolate objects, it has already morphed into a movement that could someday transform how we prepare and consume food. While some people believe the future of printed food will begin at the chemical level, others think it will become a common tool to augment the molds, knives, and ovens we already have. Regardless, both camps agree that the information age’s transformations have started making kitchen magic.”

Part of what will make the kitchen magic will be research into how all the senses come into play in the enjoyment of food. As this data is fed into computers and analyzed, we won’t be too far away from creating the food synthesizer that Gene Roddenberry conceived when he sat down to write his first Star Trek script.

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