In Star Trek: The Original Series, Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise got their meals from a food synthesizer, generating dinner with the touch of a button. Thanks to some incredible scientific advances and the rise of 3-D printing, we're now within reach of futuristic on-demand eating. Here's what we can look forward to:
1. 3-D printed pizza (and veggie burgers and pasta and ... )
A Barcelona-based startup company called Natural Machines is building a 3-D food printer that, if everything stays on track, will start being sold as early as this year, hovering around the $1,300 price range. Foodini isn't quite a food synthesizer. You can't just hit a button for a baked chicken and then another for an ice cream sundae. The machine ships with empty containers, and you fill each with fresh ingredients, like pasta sauce or pie-crust dough, and Foodini prints food based on an uploaded recipe or design.
Since the printing is done with a single-nozzle system, the food ingredients all need to start at a liquid or paste level, which eliminates a lot of dietary staples like, well, meat. But it excels at the more tedious tasks most people just give up on, like making sauces and homemade pasta. Even pizzas don't get made by scratch very often. But Foodini could hypothetically make a pizza shaped like a puppy, and what more can you really ask for?
2. 3-D printed meat
Bioprinting is best known for its use making replacement organs in the medical field. But Sarah Mautsch and Aaron Abentheuer, two students at the University of Applied Sciences Schwäbisch Gmünd in Germany, created a prototype machine called the Cultivator that uses bioprinting to 3-D print meat at home.
"It is not only about a cruelty-free production, it is also about 85% less greenhouse gases, and it is about a growing population," Mautsch writes on her portfolio site. "Bio-organic printing is about feeding a world with healthier, more ecological and cruelty-free meat."
With an iPad linked to a simple-looking acrylic glass box, the Cultivator would be able to create proteins tailored to the user's needs (like less fat content). The final product wouldn't look exactly like the steaks and wings we're used to; there'd be no bones, for instance.
The idea of eating cubes of synthesized flesh sounds a little difficult to get used to. But this technology, which is still conceptual, would make it possible to keep the vitamin base of a carnivorous diet without the meat industry's impact on the environment.
3. 3-D printed foods for the elderly
3-D printed food is actually perfect for elderly people. Since all food needs to come out of a printer nozzle, everything has to be paste-based and soft. Plus, the ingredients can be tailored for any number of nutritional compositions, like moderating the protein or carbohydrate content in whatever you're printing. A program from the European Union called PERFORMANCE, or "PERsonalized FOod using Rapid MAnufacturing for the Nutrition of elderly ConsumErs," aims to do that with a series of 3-D food printers. The EU expects that by 2025, 1 in 5 of its citizens will be 65 or older, and chances are not all of them want to live on soup if chewing becomes a chore.
According to io9, something like a beef rouladen can be created as something similar to a gelatin, but retaining shape and still being made of a liquefied meat.
There are a lot of words in there you don't want associated with food, at least when you know what a side of beef is supposed to taste like, but only eating something like split-pea soup for the rest of your life sounds absolutely miserable. While you might not want to start eating a gelatinous meatball while your teeth and muscles are still in great shape, by the time they start to go, the technology could have advanced dramatically, meaning nothing you eat will need a "gelation agent."
4. 3-D printed farm pods
If humanity manages to leave Earth and create life on another planet, we might struggle to find familiar resources where we land — and Tang and powdered astronaut food can only satiate us for so long. AstroGro is a 3-D printed "space pod" that can be used to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, and also clean the air. It's connected to an interface, like a smartphone, that monitors growing conditions such as hydration and light to use the fewest resources necessary to grow food, and do so with as much recycling and repurposing as possible.
But the device doesn't need to wait until we reach outer space. Having these tiny growing pods, all built with 3-D printers and rebuilt with the old, dead pods, could make it possible for people living in less-than-ideal growing conditions — like a desert or a tiny New York apartment — to grow their own food, thus taking the pressure off massive farms where water is being over-consumed.
Plus, you'd never have to pay exorbitant prices for avocados ever again.
5. 3-D printed living food
Possibly the least appealing part of 3-D printed food is how unnatural it looks. Which makes sense: If your food comes from a nozzle, it's not going to look farm-fresh, and that can be a tough mental hurdle to clear.
But a Netherlands-based designer found an alternative: Edible Growth, which lets the food grow after it's printed. "I want to show that high-tech food or lab-produced food does not have to be unhealthy, unnatural and not tasteful," designer Chloé Rutzerveld wrote in her portfolio. "Edible Growth is an example of high-tech but fully natural, healthy and sustainable food made possible by combining aspects of nature, science, technology and design."
Edible Growth starts as an edible 3-D printed structure made of dough or pasta. It's then filled with edible soil, spores, seeds and yeast. Then you just allow it to grow naturally for three to five days until you're left with an edible sphere of natural, organic food.
It's like miniature farming, only you get to eat the entire farm when you're done.
6. 3-D printed teeth
Excluding the PERFORMANCE concept above, most eating involves a good, or at least halfway decent, set of teeth. As 3-D printing gets more advanced, it's also getting faster. Companies like Carbon3D are trying to bring that speed into the dentist's office to print a new tooth while you're waiting.
The company, best known around the Internet for printing this Eiffel Tower model in under seven minutes, is looking to edge its way into dental prosthetics by replacing the decades-old "milling" process with printing. Instead of shaping and carving a tooth from a chunk of porcelain, the tooth can be built layer by layer to look and feel exactly like the tooth it's replacing.
The ability to quickly and accurately print teeth means a lot of expensive prosthetics can be replaced with efficient alternatives that can put in real work on a well-done steak. Or it can give you vampire fangs, if that's your thing.
7. 3-D printed desserts for pretty damn cheap
To be fair, if you can print a pizza on the Foodini, you can print desserts on it too. But Bocusini is its cheaper, cuter sibling. Funded on Kickstarter, the Munich-based company's early bird prize for the Bocusini junior model — which sells for roughly $612 compared to Foodini's $1,300 — starts shipping in December of this year.
But what's so cool here is how easy it is.
Lauding itself as the first plug-and-play 3-D printer, the Bocusini uses food tubes, rather than fresh ingredients blended by the user, to quickly print foods in a small space (about four square inches). While that doesn't give you a lot of room to work with, it means you can do complicated, intricate designs on a small scale. Setup is just plugging it in, putting in the food tubes and uploading a food design.
While Bocusini is on the cuter side of the "change the world" spectrum, it's a simple enough interface to get young people interested in 3-D printing their own foods, creating early familiarity with what was once a headache of a technology. Today it might just be marzipan frogs, but it could be the next step in creating the next generation of 3-D printers — and the people passionate about creating them.