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Tuesday, 3 June 2014

NASA investigates 3D food printing

Girl eating pizza with stretchy cheeseWhat will future astronauts eat during their multi-year mission to Mars?  

That’s a big challenge, since there are no supermarkets or farm stands along the way – and probably no room for a kitchen or pantry on the spaceship.  

To find a solution to this problem, US Space Agency NASA has awarded a $125,000 contract to Systems and Materials Research Consultancy, Austin, Texas, to study the feasibility of using additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, for making food in space.

Joining with Academia
The proposal involves the design, build, and testing of a nutritional system using progressive 3D printing and inkjet technologies. The 3D printing component will be designed to deliver macronutrients (i.e. starch, protein, and fat), structure, and texture while the inkjet will supply micronutrients, flavour and aroma. To assist in producing safe, nutritious, and palatable foods, SMRC will team up with the food science programme at North Carolina State University and International Flavours and Fragrances.

NASA wants to provide space travellers some good old-fashioned comfort food, and gave SMRC a grant to figure out the mechanics behind pizza-making in space. SMRC, in turn, wants food-science expertise from NC State to figure out how to get the ingredients from the printer into an edible combination that looks and tastes like pizza.

The Challenges of Pizza Printing
Chris Daubert, professor and head of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences at NC State, says that pizza makes a good 3D printing candidate because it is a layered product. So, theoretically, you could use a 3D food printer to spray some dough onto a glorified hot plate, spray some sauce on top of the warming dough, and then spray some cheese to create pizza in space.

However there are various rheological challenges in getting something as springy as pizza dough to come out of a nozzle that normally shoots out ink. Add to that the challenge of properly heating the items – not to mention that whole zero-gravity thing, also known as cooking while floating.

Daubert and researchers in his lab work specifically on the flow of food materials, or food rheology and are key users of the
TA.XTplus texture analyser. It's their job to figure out how to make pizza dough with the proper consistency to flow into and through the 3D printer, and then out of the printer via its nozzles, and then to repeat the process with the rest of the ingredients – sauce, cheese and, perhaps, other toppings.

Using common food-science testing equipment that lets food flow through it, the NC State researchers are testing current store-bought pizza doughs to see how they flow out of the device through different-sized nozzles. In other words, which dough consistency can be combined with the proper nozzle size to produce the proper layer of pizza crust? How do those factors change when the sauce layer is added? And how do they change again when you add the cheese to the pizza?

“Flexibility is the key when cooking in zero gravity,” Daubert says. “Getting food to flow out of a 3D printer and making it appealing to an astronaut is a big challenge.”

The Potential of Printing in Space
The macronutrient feed stocks will be stored in dry sterile containers and fed directly to the printer. At the print head, these stocks will be combined with water or oil per a digital recipe to minimise waste and spoilage. Flavours and texture modifiers will also be added at this stage.  This mixture will then be blended and extruded into the desired shape. The micronutrients and flavours will be stored in sterile packs as liquids, aqueous solutions, or dispersions.

Long-duration space missions need foods with a minimum five-year shelf life that meet safety, acceptability, variety, and nutritional stability requirements. The six-month study will look at how the technology can deliver nutrient stability and provide a variety of foods from shelf-stable ingredients, while maintaining crew time and waste.

If 3D food printing is successful, its biggest advantage may be extended shelf life, personalized nutrition and variety, and minimal waste. Such advantages may benefit other populations, such as the military, or those with acute food needs due to natural disasters or famines.

When pizza delivery just isn’t possible – during space flights to Mars, maybe – printing out a pizza could be a good option.

To read and watch more about 3D printing with NASA, see the videos below:

NASA Funds Development of 3D Printed Food
3D Food Printer Will Start with Pizza

For more about 3D printing of food, read our previous 3D printing blog article...

TA.XTplus texture analyser with bloom jar The
TA.XTplus texture analyser is part of a family of texture analysis instruments and equipment from Stable Micro Systems. An extensive portfolio of specialist attachments is available to measure and analyse the textural properties of a huge range of food products. Our technical experts can also custom design instrument fixtures according to individual specifications.

Watch our video about texture analysis  Replicating Consumer Preferences
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