image courtesy of SMRC
NASA has just awarded a $125,000 grant to the Austin, Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Corporation, funding research into the possibility of a 3D printer capable of printing food for astronauts beyond low-earth orbit.
You read right. NASA wants to build Star Trek's food replicator so that cosmic travelers can have pig in spaaaace (You say Muppets, I say prophets). The first test of this Jetson-ian technology? NASA is calling on SMRC to print a pizza.
The proposed food printer would run on a RepRap and pull from cartridges of powdered oil, water, dough, tomato paste and "protein mix." These ingredients would be combined in chambers before exiting through a valve system, building the food layer by layer, a concept that is familiar to makers worldwide. If successful, this project could prove useful in long-distance space travel, where the shelf life of food becomes a major issue.
"Long-distance space travel requires 15-plus years of shelf life," SMRC engineer Anjan Contractor, tells Quartz. "The way we are working on it is, all the carbs, proteins, macro and micro-nutrients are in powder form. We take moisture out and, in that form, it will last maybe 30 years."
NASA sees promise in the technology which was presented to them by SMRC at the Humans 2 Mars Summit in D.C. earlier this month. The company used their previous foray into 3D-printed food, a chocolate printer, to win over NASA types.
SMRC sees potential for 3D printing food down here on Earth as well. In their proposal to NASA they said that "with the anticipated world population of 12 Billion by the end of the century, the current infrastructure of food production and supply will not be able to meet the demand of such a large population." They hope that 3D printing food may help "avoid food shortage, inflation, starvation, famine and even food wars."
However, you shouldn't expect 3D printers to be popping up in the home appliances section anytime soon. The proposal plans to take 3D-printed food from a Technology Readiness Level of 3 (the "research to prove feasibility" stage) to a TRL of 4 (the beginning stages of development).