Like a scene out of Star Trek, imagine one day being able to create an entire meal with the push of a button. For astronauts headed to Mars, 3D printers could potentially be their mechanical chefs, thanks to technology pioneered by such scientists as the Cornell University’s Fab@Home Student Project Team. They have developed gel-like substances called hydrocolloids that can be altered with flavoring agents to produce different tastes and textures when printed.
In addition to breaking the monotonous stream of prepackaged space food, 3D printers also have potential to mix in vital nutrients and amino acids that could increase productivity. NASA states that some of the best food able to be grown out of Earth’s orbit are lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes. While great for roughage, these vegetables may need to be augmented with more protein dense supplements, and a printing machine could accomplish the task without taking up as much space as sealed containers or produce as much waste.
3D food printing still has some limitations, and some items such as frosting or cheese are easier to fabricate than fruits, vegetables, and meats. Making a wide variety of foods from one machine would require laying down a number of materials at once at different temperatures from a range of ingredients. Throw in the need for interchangeable printer heads, and the process becomes even more tricky. Even so, the Cornell team has already been successful printing fake bananas, mozzarella, and mushrooms with accurate texture and flavor.
Michelle Terfansky, an engineer who studied the world of 3D printed food for use in space for her master’s thesis at University of Southern California suggests that researchers focus on taste first and aesthetics later. She believes that within five to ten years, we may see a machine capable of creating items that look and taste like what we would expect from the real thing. The head of the Fab@Home team, Jeffrey Lipton sees the ability to build potatoes or steaks from scratch as a possibility within 15-20 years. As the printers advance, they also have the potential to find their way into hospitals and space stations as well as a projected Martian colony.