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.

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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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