To go where no food has gone before…well, except on Star Trek episodes, that is. Classic Star Trek fans will remember a nifty little device called a food synthesizer (later Star Trek series called it a replicator). This voice-activated piece of technology could whip up whatever the person (or alien) wanted to eat or drink – no matter how disgusting! Like so many other cool science fiction technologies, replicators seemed doomed to stay on the sound stage…until now. Thanks to advances in 3D printing, food synthesizers may soon be a reality.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the process of manufacturing a three-dimensional solid object by putting down thin layers of material, such as plastic or metal, on top of one another. This method is the opposite of traditional manufacturing which typically takes a solid and removes material to get the desired shape (subtractive manufacturing).

What if, instead of plastics or metals, a 3D printing machine was able to lay down layers of starches, proteins and fats along with flavourings to create food elements such as crust, sauce, pepperoni and cheese? The question of using 3D printers to synthesize food for space travel has led NASA to give Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Consultancy (SMRC) a $125,000 grant to create a 3D food-printing prototype. But don’t expect to be ordering 3D printed pizzas any time in the near future. SMRC cautions that their project is only the first step towards 3D printed food.

3d food printer schematic

Diagram of a proposed 3D food printer based on ReRap. (Credit: SMRC).

So why does NASA care about 3D printed food? They are primarily concerned with pre-packaged food spoiling on long-duration missions such as missions to Mars. Raw ingredients (food stocks) in powder form (like the ink in your printer) would keep better than premade food, but astronauts would need an easy way to be able to combine them in space – hence the need for a food synthesizer of some kind. Having the ability to create a variety of custom-made foods would also enable space travelers to have more variety in their meals, which is considered an important part of crew morale. Finally, having fewer pre-packed foods would mean less weight and waste due to packaging.

The research company TNO in the Netherlands is already creating 3D printed food. Watch the video below to see a number of different methods of printing 3D food.

What do you think: How keen would you be to eat 3D printed food? Join the discussion below, or via our poll.

References

Pizza printouts? NASA funds project to make space meals with 3-D printer (Cosmic Log, nbcnews.com) They'll be cooking up a Mars menu that's out of this world - Mock 'astronauts' to research what's best to feed space crew on long missions (Space on nbcnews.com) The wild possibilities of printing food (Technology on nbcnews.com) Will 3D Printers Manufacture Your Meals? (Popular Mechanics) 3D Printing: now printing food too (TNO, Netherlands)

Synthetic Food in Popular Culture

The 1973 film Soylent Green imagines a resource-starved, globally warmed world (it is set in New York City in the year 2022) that is so overpopulated that only synthetic food can feed the population, and ‘real’ food is an incredible luxury. The film’s punch line is one of the most famous in science fiction. All of the Star Trek series and films have used food replicators or synthesizers, although they didn’t always deliver the chicken sandwich and coffee or Tea, Earl Grey, Hot that the captain ordered.

Kim Taylor

Kim Taylor is an Education Specialist at Let’s Talk Science. A true ‘nature-girl’, she is happiest outdoors, whether it be in a beautiful provincial park or her community vegetable garden. She is interested in science and technology of all kinds and enjoys sharing cool stuff about the world with people of all ages.

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