NASA to Engineer 3D Printed Space Food

by Abdul Rehman on July 26, 2013

NASA 3D Printed PizzasImagine that with a push of a button on a 3D printer, you can create food, any recipe you can possibly think of, within minutes! If this sounds like something from science fiction and too good to be true, it’s not. NASA has set its eyes on a 3D food printer for its astronauts which could possibly be available within the next few years.

How it Began

The concept of 3D printing has been around for some time. It was Chuck Hull who, in 1986, first gave the concept of 3D Printing or Stereolithography. He defined a 3D printer as:

“A system for generating three-dimensional objects by creating a cross-sectional pattern of the object to be formed at a selected surface… being automatically formed and integrated together to provide a step-wise laminar build up of the desired object”

Charles W. Hull, 1986

So, the logic behind 3D printing is simple: A 3D image is broken into thousands and thousands of cross sections or layers by computer software, and then a printing device develops these layers one on top of the other until a complete solid object is formed from the combination of these layers. Until now, it has been used to make toys and machines. However, it is only now, about 30 years later, that NASA has Taken the Initiative to Print Food with a 3D Printer .

NASA’s Push for a 3D Food Printer

About a month ago, NASA gave SMRC (Systems and Materials Research Consultancy – a Texas-based company) a grant of 125,000 US dollars for a 6-month research project to develop a 3D printer that can print food. At the moment, this is an SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) phase I contract which means that it is in the early stages, and will progress to phase II, if the project shows promise.

NASA selected SMRC because of its prestigious team of experts and because the proposed research program was well laid out. The research team at SMRC, comprising of scientists specializing in 3D printing, will join hands with food science program at North Carolina State University to ensure that they produce a printer that can deliver nutritious and tasteful foods. The first dish, that SMRC is looking to produce with this printer, is a pizza.

3D Printing – A New Space-Food Recipe

“But I thought NASA was a space company.” You may object here. “How come they suddenly developed interest in manufacturing food?”

The answer is simple: During long duration space missions, the food that astronauts eat is preprocessed and tasteless. It is pre selected by NASA without taking into account the individual tastes and needs of astronauts. Over longer periods of time, astronauts can not only lose their appetite, but also may not get proper nutrition according to their individual needs. Furthermore, NASA’s food has a maximum storage time of 5 years, making longer trips in space, such as a mission to Mars or further, totally infeasible. The solution to this problem was provided by SMRC: 3D printed food.

The principle behind a 3D food printer is quite similar to a typical 3D printer. According to SMRC:

“This system will include a micro and macro nutrient storage system, mixing system to formulate paste and a 3D dispensing system, where flavoured and textured food will be prepared for astronauts”

In short, raw materials in the form of carbohydrates, proteins and fat are provided and stored in cartridges. Whenever needed, the printer uses these raw materials and mixes them with flavours and aromas to generate three dimensional foods (such as a pizza) that we eat every day. However, the capabilities of SRMC’s food printer are far more than simple printing of food. When completed, its capabilities, as listed by SMRC in its

  • It will be able to produce 3D food from raw materials.
  • It will be able to add all kinds of flavours and aromas to the food.
  • It will be able to store raw materials for up to 30 years! This makes distant missions to space quite feasible, as astronauts will be able to get a variety of foods depending on their preferences and individual needs.
  • It will have zero wasting of raw materials. This is very essential if the 3D printer is to be used for long-distance space missions.

So, astronauts can rejoice, as the days of eating the same food each day will soon be over. 3D food will come to their rescue.

What Will 3D Printed Food Change?

It will change a lot of things. As already mentioned, its first application will be in space missions. Astronauts will have nutritious and flavourful food during their trips in space. This will especially be useful in long-distance missions. However, even in short-duration space expeditions, it will be a great replacement for the tasteless food that astronauts are forced to eat.

SMRC’s research team has also proposed a modification of the 3D printer for short-duration tours. The modified printer will have no storage cartridges; instead, pastes, prepared in advance, will be used. These pastes will generate food a lot quicker and will also decrease the cost of the mission by eliminating the need of storage cartridges.

Other future prospects of 3D food printing are virtually endless. Some of them are discussed below:

  • The World’s Food Problem: The world’s population is growing at a very rapid pace. The food production capability will, soon, be outmatched by the rate at which the population is increasing. This will inevitably cause food shortage, leading to disputes and wars on the food issue throughout the world. All this can be prevented by 3D food printing. There will no longer be any need for large expanses of farmed lands, for raising and slaughtering millions of farm animals and for even going to the market to buy food materials. The 3D printer will produce prepared foods without any need for all these things.
  • Food for War: In its proposal, SMRC mentions that another potential use of 3D printer could be during wars. The US Army could use 3D printed food during battles, when other food is in short supply.
  • For Ordinary Civilians: Even ordinary civilians, who are tired of going to the market every day to buy materials, looking up recipes and cooking for hours, will have a ray of hope in the form of 3D food printer, as it will make delicious dishes in a matter of minutes. People won’t need to go to restaurants any more to eat high-quality food. This last point, however, may make some chefs angry.

Conclusion – “D” for Dining

In conclusion, whether you’re an astronaut, a soldier or an ordinary citizen, 3D Printing Food has benefits for everyone. The day isn’t far when astronauts will be eating McDonald’s burgers and sandwiches in the lonely expanses of space, when soldiers will be eating their moms’ spaghetti in foreign lands and when Chef Gordon’s cuisine will be a push of a button away. NASA mentions appropriately in its report, that in “3D printer”, D is for dining. What’s more, everyone’s invited to this great meal!

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