"Tea. Earl Grey. Printed." - Captain Jean Luc Picard,
3D printing is a genuinely incredible new technology. After taking off in the 21st century on Earth, it looks set to become one of the defining technologies in human space travel and colonization.
Plans are being made to use 3D printing in creating aircraft, spacecraft, orbital factories, lunar bases... but the latest potential application might actually take the biscuit. Or possibly even print it. Researchers at Cornell University are developing a machine that can actually print food.
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Food in space has always had mixed reactions. Astronauts on the ISS now have the luxury of making things like burritos, but a lot of the food served up in space in the past has seemed rather less than appetising. Obviously, everyone would much prefer it if they could have something which best suits their own tastes.
Giving us what is, perhaps, our first glimpse of Star Trek-style food replicators, the Fab@Home 3D food printer is quite an impressive piece of equipment. Using edible hydrocolloidal suspensions (gel-like mixtures of solids and liquids) and flavoring agents, a food printer would be able to create an impressive array of different flavors and textures to help keep astronauts from getting bored with their meals. Essentially, the printers work by mimicking the taste and mouthfeel of different foods.
While it may be quite some time before this technology is suitable for general use, it could ultimately be used to blend in all of the nutrients and minerals essential for a healthy diet. It's not too much of a stretch to assume that this could even be tailored to individual dietary requirements. Intolerant to gluten or lactose? No problem! More creatively, it could be used to create foods which are impossible to make using normal methods. Just imagine a burger with layers of relish built into it.
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Space food may have come quite a way since the early days, but it's still not exactly what we might call gourmet cuisine. Typically, ISS Astronauts have only a limited variety of meals. It gets repetitive very quickly, which is what prompted Michelle Terfansky, an astronautical engineer, to write her master's thesis on how to 3D print appetizing meals in microgravity. What's more, a device like this could simultaneously take up less space and save on waste, with less empty packaging to take care of.
Unfortunately, the biggest hurdle to be overcome with printing food is what Jeffrey Lipton, leader of the Fab@Home project, refers to as "the yuck factor". In their attempts to make fake versions of familiar foods like mushrooms or mozzarella, they stumbled into what they've termed "the uncanny valley of food". Food created by the printers was very similar to what people expected, but was just different enough for people to find slightly off-putting.
Terfansky's proposed solution is to work on the flavor first. Obviously, for anyone to want to eat something, it has to be appetizing. The Fab@Home team, then, are going to concentrate first on making their 3D printed meals taste delicious, and work on the aesthetics later.
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Of course, it's going to be a while until we have a device in our kitchens next to the microwave, with a cheeseburger button on it. While it may be as little as 5-10 years for a single food printer to be able to create a good selection of foods which both look and taste right, lots of foods are still too complex to be created this way. Fruit or vegetables are much more difficult to mimick than cheese or chocolate, and chances are good that we're at least a couple of decades away from creating something like a steak from scratch.
Devices like Fab@Home are probably going to find their first homes in places like hospitals, or unusual environments like space stations and Antarctic outposts - and possibly those moon bases too. However, once the technology becomes more widespread, the potential implications and repercussions are quite astonishing!
Image: A deep fried scallop, shaped like a space shuttle – printed by the Fab@Home 3D food printer.