Imagine a mission to Mars in the future. Since it would take nearly a year to get to Mars, and a year to get back, how would astronauts survive the journey from a food perspective? Even the MREs (“meals, ready to eat”) used by the military for personnel in remote places wouldn’t last as long as the food NASA would require for a years-long journey.
Imagine, then, that astronauts or anyone else located in a region where food is hard to come by, could literally “print” their own food. A recent video story from NBC news affiliate KXAN in Austin explored ways that 3D printing could be used to solve the world’s food shortage…or at least help out hungry astronauts.
3D printing is still in its infancy. The applications for the technology, however, are truly mind-boggling. It works like this: a 3D printer uses a variety of materials – plastics, glass or even living tissue – to lay down layer after layer of a substance until it creates it from scratch. In industry, it’s referred to as “additive manufacturing” to differentiate it from typical manufacturing process that are subtractive (taking a lump of raw materials and cutting or shaping it to arrive at a finished product).
For food, the process could enable humans to feed themselves when safe food sources are unavailable. One company pursuing this process is Austin, Texas-based Systems & Materials Research Corporation (SMRC), which has landed a six-month, $125,000 grant from NASA to create a prototype of what it calls a “universal food synthesizer.” It’s essentially a 3D printer that prints food.
At the recent event in Austin covered by KXAN, SMRC demonstrated the process by “printing” pizza. Powdered ingredients that can keep for years are mixed into individual vessels. A heated plate than receives a layer of dough, some sauce and then some cheese topping. Twelve minutes of baking later, and a pizza – the world’s first 3D-printed pizza – was created.
“We believe that this is the future of food,” said Anjan Contractor, a senior mechanical engineer at Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC).
While no one was able to taste the pizza – the company says it needs FDA approval for that first – the technology may not only feed astronauts on their journeys to and from Mars, but they could offer better options in military operations, in emergency evacuation or refugee situations or simply for people who don’t want to get in the car and go get a pizza.
Edited by Alisen Downey