NASA has provided mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor (no pun intended) with a $125,000 grant to build a 3D printer capable of automated food creation, and the first item on the menu is a pizza. If successful, the printer could use ingredients to provide efficient food with extremely long shelf lives to help with long-distance space travel and global food shortages by limiting waste.
By using replaceable powder cartridges with the necessary ingredients, such as oils, water, and carbohydrate powers, you would print out a layer of dough, cooked during the printing process, and then add a tomato and protein layer. The different ingredients, layers, and cooking times that would have to be mixed and matched make the process quite complex, but given the layer-based nature of pizza, it would appear to be a perfect candidate for the main course. Although not fine cuisine, it most certainly sounds like an upgrade from freeze-dried rations and non-perishable snacks. And for those with a sweet tooth, there’s even printable chocolate for dessert.
The main benefits of 3D printing food are that the cartridges can have a shelf life of up to 30 years and will only release the amount of ingredient necessary for a chosen portion, significantly cutting down waste. Perishability is less of an issue for astronauts who can keep foodstuffs under pressure. But food decay is currently a significant problem with food production in the developing world, and can be overcome by converting foods to powder. Further, the printers would be very efficient in production, and so will make more food with less material than is often the case. Of course price remains an issue today, but as with most technologies, there is hope that with time the printer will be easier to distribute to communities in climates unfavorable to food conservation.
A significant step in the democratization of the technology is that both the hardware is open-source, and so will be the software once developed. This will allow innovators from around the world to use Contractor's innovation as a stepping-stone to the creation of synthetic food powders, and other ideas we have yet to imagine.