On the Road to the Replicator: 3D Printing Space Snacks

By Wesley Fenlon

One arm of 3D printing research is all about food, which we can already print--as long as you like gels and gooey compounds.

3D printing moon bases? The European Space Agency is on it. Printing skin cells like ink from a desktop printer? Science is trying that one, too. Combine the two together, and what do you have? The recipe for a twisted sci-fi body horror flick, certainly. And, maybe, a way to 3D print food. Science is hard at work on 3D printing technologies that can pump edible materials, rather than plastics, through extruders, creating delicious dishes instead of fun knick-knacks. We're thinking replicator, but not the MakerBot. This is all Star Trek.

Wired reports that 3D printing food for space missions is a real possibility in the future, with some big advantages. A 3D printer would take up less space than a large carton of food (although the materials for the printer would take up space as well). The printer could inject important vitamins and minerals into food to keep astronauts healthy. And it could help relieve the monotony of eating the same meager selection of rations for months on end. The article even imagines family members on Earth putting together digital recipes and beaming them to astronauts to keep them from feeling too isolated. Nothing like a home-digitized meal, right?

Photo credit: BBC News.

Variety is the strength of 3D printing in theory--after all, Star Trek's replicator could make virtually anything--but in reality, it's probably the technology's greatest shortcoming. Wired writes that "Some items, like frosting or processed cheese, are easy to make printable. A chocolate treat, for instance, is created using a syringe filled with melted chocolate to build up a shape specified by a computer layer by layer.

But other materials – fruits, vegetables, and meats – are much more of a challenge. Even with flavored gels, printing a wide variety of foods would require figuring out how to lay down potentially dozens of different materials, each with their own characteristic viscosity or perfect temperature range, using interchangeable printer heads."

Flavored gels just won't cut it, in most cases. Texture matters in food as much as taste. Still, there are cases where 3D printing food already works and makes sense. Take chocolate, for example. 3D printing chocolate? We're already there, and Japan has figured out how to make it creepy by letting people 3D print their own faces. Cornell's Fab@Home venture is leading the charge on developing printable food tech and hopes to have models for sale for home use within the next few years.

Wired cites some experts confident that 3D food printing will be able to properly replicate existing food textures in 15-20 years. Unlike many NASS-driven technologies, which trickle down into common use after being invented for the space program, 3D food printing may trickle up. No matter how many scientists are working with the technology, we bet it's chefs like the Modernist Cuisine team who figure out how to make the technology compelling. And delicious.