One of the biggest challenges facing humanity in space is: how to cultivate food. Coincidentally, one of the biggest challenges facing the entire planet in the near future will be: how to cultivate enough food to support an ever-swelling population. Wouldn't it be delicious if both challenges could be solved, or at least partially solved, using the same, open-source technology?
Enter the 3-D printer: your all-in-one solution to lunar habitat-building, gun-making and space pizza preparation! Now, the latter has grabbed the attention of NASA, which has approved a $125,000 grant for a mechanical engineer to develop a prototype of his universal food synthesizer based on 3-D printing technology.
ANALYSIS: 3-D Printed Space Food For the Gourmet Astronaut
3-D printing certainly isn't new to the space technology arena. It has been pegged as a potential answer to building habitats on the moon and Mars, for example. A 3-D printer could be landed onto a planetary body ahead of a human mission and it could automatically construct habitable structures out of locally-mined materials.
Also, there's some hypothetical ideas for the future of 3-D printed satellites. It seems that once the technology matures, complex components for machines and other space equipment could be manufactured in situ.
But what about food?
Launching supplies into space is, of course, costly. So the ultimate aim for any long-duration interplanetary trip or long-term human presence on the surface of Mars would be to develop sustainable food cultivation techniques. A supply of fresh veggies would be the backbone of any healthy colony! But before we see a renewable supply of Mars mushrooms and cosmic cucumbers, we'd need to change the way we see food. The 3-D printer could just do that.
ANALYSIS: Print Me a Condo on the Moon!
To Anjan Contractor, of Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC) in Austin, Texas, food is just a collection of compounds that can be isolated in the form of a powder. These different varieties of powder can then be mixed with oils and water, combined by his 3-D printer. Governed not by a paperback recipe book, the printer would be controlled by software recipes. Food can then be printed to order.
Interestingly, an individual's dietary requirements can be tightly controlled - in the future of Mars colonization, this could prove to be very useful. Colonists' food could be easily fortified with vitamins or minerals they are lacking. One could imagine medicines being added to foodstuffs via computer commands. Once you strip down food into its barest of components, our future Mars colonists could keep very close tabs on their calorie intake and general health.
In an interview with Quartz, Contractor outlined his vision of eliminating food waste - the powder his system will use is shelf-stable for up to 30-years. For long-duration spaceflight, this would be a huge advantage.
"Long distance space travel requires 15-plus years of shelf life," he said. "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."
ANALYSIS: Domino's Pizza Moon Plan is All Topping, No Base
With his NASA Small Business Innovation Research program grant, Contractor will build a "pizza printer." Although that may not sound very appetizing, pizza is an obvious choice for a first 3-D printed food as it can be layered with ingredients. The first layer, the dough, will be printed onto a hot plate that will immediately bake the base of the pizza. Then, powdered tomato puree will be mixed with oil and layered over the top. A layer of protein will also be added.
This isn't the first 3-D printed food concept to make it into the limelight. As reported by Discovery News' Markus Hammonds in February, the company Fab@Home is also developing a 3-D printer to create foodstuffs out of "edible hydrocolloidal suspensions" (gel-like mixtures of solids and liquids). In their research, they've stumbled into an "uncanny valley of food" where the 3-D foods don't feel quite right when eaten. More work is obviously needed to understand how to mimic not only the flavors, but also the texture of food.
Contractor hopes, however, that by making his 3-D food synthesizer open-source, that once his technology is matured and released to the world, others will innovate and develop the technology, perhaps overcoming this unsavory uncanny valley.
Although the applications in space are obvious - and even Jean Luc Picard would be impressed by this modest attempt at a Star Trek replicator - Contractor is acutely aware that this idea may, one day, transform the way we conceive food here on Earth. This in-turn may help feed the planet.
"I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can't supply 12 billion people sufficiently," he said. "So we eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food."
So will the first manufactured food on Mars be a 3-D printed pizza from a 3-D printed Pizza Hut? If so, may I suggest the first family-sized pizza be called the "Olympus Mons-ter."
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