3-D food printing reaches for the stars

Turns out pizza—rather than space—may be the real final frontier.

At least that’s how mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor sees it. Backed by a NASA grant to develop a 3-D food printer for long-distance space travel, Contractor reasoned that if he could print pizza, it would demonstrate that most recipes could successfully go through a 3-D printer nozzle, layer by layer, to turn out tasty meals in tight spaces using ingredients that can last for years.

Anjan Contractor

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that pizza is one of America’s most popular foods—and NASA’s galleys have never served up a piping hot pie in space, he notes. Today, future astronauts are one step closer to the first zero gravity pizza party, thanks to Contractor’s work at Austin, Texas-based Systems & Materials Research Corp. Contractor has created a laptop-sized 3-D food printer that can concoct and cook a basic pizza using powdered dough, tomato sauce and cheese. NASA has not yet approved taste trials, but Contractor says he has faith in both the recipe and the technology.

“The recipe designed to make this pizza came from North Carolina State University [researchers] … and when you make the same recipe by hand, the pizza tastes great!” he says.

A space food odyssey begins

It will likely be 10 years or more until a 3-D food printer is ready for the rigors of space travel, says Contractor. But he has already taken giant steps since 2010, when the computer-assisted design expert used open source plans to build his first 3-D printer for $300, working on his own.

In his first experiment, Contractor warmed a Tootsie Roll in a microwave oven and then placed the pliable chocolate goo into a 3mm plastic filament tipped with a nozzle. “I fed it through the nozzle and printed the chocolate,” he says. “That’s when the whole idea came about: Why not print food?”

Contractor theorized that cartridges of food ingredients could be inserted into a printer, similar to those used to produce ink-on-paper documents. On command, a device would print out food ingredients layer by layer onto a heated printer bed that would cook the ingredients.

Contractor says he was aware that others were also working on 3-D printers for food, most notably the Creative Machines Lab at Cornell University and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). But he was setting his sights higher as he imagined 3-D printers that could help produce food for astronauts in orbit as well as on the surface of distant planets. So after forming a collaboration with researchers from North Carolina State University’s Department of Food, Bioprocessing & Nutrition Sciences and International Flavors & Fragrances Inc., Contractor and the team approached NASA, which awarded them a $125,000 grant for the first phase of the project.

Ultimately, the 3-D devices could be used to print a variety of foods for space voyagers by mixing powder ingredients with water, oil and flavors, and the printer could even be linked with favorite recipes from home, says Contractor. The researchers at North Carolina State University and International Flavors & Fragrances have “created flavors that we can add in our food based on an astronaut’s taste and habits,” he says. “So we use a lot of powder ingredients in these flavors.”

… If we can store the [3-D printer] powdered food ingredients for a very long time, then why not utilize that for refugee camps where the food supply is a big issue?” —Anjan Contractor

The team is currently waiting to find out if NASA will provide further funding to develop a more mature prototype demonstrating the printer’s viability in the microgravity of spacecraft life. If all goes well, Contractor says he hopes to make a pre-production model during the next four to five years that could actually be used in space.

Down to Earth benefits

Will 3-D food printers one day become as commonplace in home kitchens as the ubiquitous toaster or blender? Contractor thinks so, citing the technology’s ability to let cooks customize different recipes based on diners’ individual taste preferences and nutritional needs.

But he also believes 3-D food printers have the potential to be a game changer for addressing hunger in developing countries, particularly in refugee camps and war zones.

“The idea is that if we can store the powdered food ingredients for a very long time, then why not utilize that for refugee camps where the food supply is a big issue?” says Contractor. “Powder is a very basic ingredient. You add the nutrients as needed and can work that into a more viscous formulation, adding water and oil and whatever else is required. Then you print it.”

He adds, “I think there will be increasing momentum, looking into food printing not just from the technological point of view, but also an economic point of view, a clinical point of view and how can it bring a sustainable future to the world.”

Howard Wolinsky

Howard Wolinsky, who covered medicine and technology for the Chicago Sun-Times for 27 years, is a freelance science and business writer for European Molecular Biology Organisation Reports, Crain's Chicago Business and other media. He is based in the Chicago area.

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