At an innovation lab in Cambridge, UK, a group engaged in developing physical and digital experiences has developed a 3D printer capable of making edible fruit which, through a process of molecular-gastronomy techniques they call 'spherification,' takes individual droplets of liquid into a whole new and flavorful realm.
By adding flavor components to a desired shape via a novel 3D printer, the device from Dovetail is ultimately aimed at chefs and 'foodies' interested in pressing the limits of the eating experience into the future of "creative dining experiences." The multidisciplinary team responsible has worked at various times with companies such as Microsoft, Palo Alto Research Center, General Electric, Qualcomm and AVEVA.
Dr. Vaiva Kalnikaitė, Creative Director and Founder of Dovetail, and Dr. Gabriel Villar, Chief Inventor at Dovetail, unveiled their 3D fruit printer at Tech Food Hack – an experimental dining hackathon event where "a small group of foodies, hackers and designers came together to re-think and make new dining experiences."
"We have been thinking of making this for a while," says Kalnikaitė. "It's such an exciting time for us as an innovation lab. Our 3D fruit printer will open up new possibilities not only to professional chefs but also to kitchens in our home – allowing us to enhance and expand our dining experiences. We have re-invented the concept of fresh fruit on demand."
But Villar, of Oxford University's Department of Chemistry, might have other tricks up his sleeve as well. He has, working with other researchers, created a scalable way of producing a new type of soft material in which the printed structures could – in principle – employ biological machinery like that which enables the sophisticated behavior of living cells and tissues.
What might that mean? Food that can move in your mouth or stomach? Food capable of changing shape once it's been ingested to create a desired configuration?
The droplet networks in Villar's other work can be designed to fold themselves into different shapes after printing. In practice, that team made a construct with a flat shape resembling the petals of a flower and 'programmed' it to fold itself into a hollow ball. The folding action is powered by 'osmolarity' differences which generate water transfer between the individual droplets.
In the spherification process, droplets of gel are placed into a dish of solution and positioned to mimic the shape, texture and color of various fruits. The liquid itself is mixed with powdered sodium alginate before being dipped into a bowl of cold calcium chloride or other soluble calcium salt. The process allows the liquid to form a small sphere in the calcium solution before the solution reacts with the alginate to create an outer layer of thin, flexible skin like that surrounding fruits.
So far, the company has created raspberries and black currants while simultaneously developing prototypes of larger fruit like apples and pears.
"With our novel printing technique, you can not only re-create existing fruits, but also invent your own creations," Villar adds. "The taste, texture, size and shape of the fruit can all be customized."