NASA-Funded 3D Food Printer: Could It End World Hunger?

Would you eat a 3D-printed beetle and duckweed pizza?

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This is what 3D-printed food looks like. Yum?

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, we were introduced to food replicators: devices capable of fiddling with reality at the subatomic level to reproduce everything edible, from steaks to snacks to steaming cups of tea. In reality, such fanciful devices — based on the show’s equally far-fetched transporter technology — probably couldn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean something like 3D food printing might not (eventually) get the job done just as effectively.

(MORE: Why Argentine Steaks Are Getting Harder to Find)

We may need food-printing technology relatively soon. Several multibillion-dollar mission-to-Mars projects are in the works, including Mars One, to which some 78,000 people recently applied. The estimated arrival date of the first colonists on that mission is 2023, barely a decade from now. Imagine having to plan that menu; the trip alone could take seven months, after which you’re essentially stuck on the planet indefinitely, subsisting on what you brought along or supplies fired planet-to-planet like some sort of deep-space feeding tube.

We may have the beginnings of an answer to the question soon: NASA just threw a $125,000, six-month grant at a project by Anjan Contractor, a mechanical engineer at Systems and Materials Research Corporation in Austin to develop a working prototype of his proposed universal food synthesizer.

“Long distance space travel requires 15-plus years of shelf life,” Contractor told Quartz. “The way we are working on it is, all the carbs, proteins and macro and micro nutrients are in powder form. We take moisture out, and in that form it will last maybe 30 years.”

But step back from all the sexy space mission talk and you realize there may be a much more vital application for the technology right here on Earth: placing 3D food printers in households, allowing a world population that’s on its way to an estimated nine billion people by 2040 to synthesize healthy meals from powder-filled cartridges with — since they’ve been leeched of moisture, sort of like freeze-dried astronaut ice cream — incredible shelf lives. Quartz notes that “since a powder is a powder,” so long as we’re including the right proportions of variables like carbs, proteins and sugars, we could shift our input source from animals over, say, to insects.

Okay, that all sounds a little boring — the sort of thing that impels writers to scribble elegiac speculative fiction stories in which people reminisce about what it tasted like to eat real food forever ago. But then we haven’t mentioned Contractor’s “pizza printer” yet, a variant of the technology that’s particularly suited to 3D printing, each layer extruded discretely, from dough to tomato to protein topping(s). Probably not a threat to Dominos, but glass half-full, right?

As for ending world hunger, the questions would still essentially be economic ones: How affordable would sophisticated food printing technology be? How would you get one into every household? How much would these base materials cost to harvest and manufacture? What would prices for them translate to at the grocery store? All central concerns, but with NASA’s help, it sounds like Contractor’s about to take the first step toward helping us answer them.

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10 comments
rtl2829
rtl2829

Soylent green is people!!!

jimmycrackcorn
jimmycrackcorn

so..... how long before Monsanto is involved....as if they weren't already.

say good bye to farm-land,hello housing and shopping malls!!!!

I guess this is the bigger plan for those of us who survive each other ??...Orwellian reality

BobBackwards
BobBackwards

@jimmycrackcorn well if we get rid off all the farms and there are 9 billion of us guess there's only one place one could find a readily available source of proteins and other nutrients... Hello soylent green

TimothyAppel
TimothyAppel

"we could shift our input source from animals over, say, to insects." ...or humans.

rodrigopacifico
rodrigopacifico like.author.displayName 1 Like

3D printers, as described here, would only be used to concoct yummy treats out of less appealing nutrient powders. However, you still need a way of producing those energy-rich carbon compounds out of inorganic matter--and when it comes to that, no man-made technology today can replace yet (at least at a large scale) nature's highly efficient process for introducing carbon nutrients in the food chain: photosynthesis. But more importantly, the world ALREADY produces enough food to feed all 7 billion of us. It is due to economic and political reasons, not technological limitations, that world hunger still persists.

mdavidruano
mdavidruano like.author.displayName 1 Like

I agree with @AndyBate, World hunger might be a little more difficult to end up. Despise our efforts, this planet is still our only resource for food, shelter and air (survival in general really)—thank you for the planet earth. However, I can think plenty of kids helping themselves produce their own concoctions of customized cereal shapes and other foods at home. We'll have to see the first prototypes to try the real thing. For now I will stick to my greens, meat, grains and water. ;)

douggrubich
douggrubich

This food synthesizer, economic impact aside, is a great answer to those nagging folk who complain about why there's funding for NASA  space research projects. All the time they whine "why can't we spend this money on feeding the poor?". Or, those who say  "the money is best spent on Earth." Yet, after the technology of printing food matures (availability of clean water may be a concern), these people will find something else to scream about.