The idea of ‘replicators’ being used to create food products is surely straight out of science fiction, and according to Star Trek fan pages, they were introduced in the 24th century in order to produce meals on Federation starships.
However, sometimes reality comes very close to science fiction, and this could be one of the few instances when sci-fi writers have over rather than underestimated the time it’ll take for a fact to catch up with fiction. Although no 3D printing service can yet print from pure energy, the 3D construction end of this technology is storming ahead and finding more and more applications.
One of the latest, as Star Trek predicted, is in food preparation. Whilst most of the demonstrations so far seem to have focused on rather simple aspects of the culinary arts, such as spreading pizza toppings or cake decorations, there is some very serious research and development taking place aimed at the construction of bespoke foodstuffs with serious nutritional purposes in mind – including for use in future space missions. A NASA-funded project began in 2013, with Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Consultancy attempting to provide a 3D printing service for space crews, able to provide nutrient stability and variety from shelf stable ingredients.
Nestlé has a research arm called the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS) who say a printer capable of manufacturing nutritional food at the standards of those replicator meals on the Enterprise could be available within just 5 – 10 years. The idea, they say, is for these machines to design foods with nutritional characteristics tailored for the individual – whether those individuals are astronauts or invalids, the elderly or people in areas where malnutrition is a major issue.
One line of development is to manufacture foodstuffs from resources like insects and algae into forms that will help overcome public resistance to these unconventional protein sources. It’s not a novel problem – similar efforts were made in the 1980s to increase uptake of soya bean products, by knitting them into textures resembling more familiar foodstuffs.
According to a paper from the University of Canberra on the topic, most people are resistant to such processed foods because they expect them to be unhealthy and unnatural. Therefore, one factor likely to affect whether the enterprise is successful or not will be whether print technology can produce food that truly resembles the real thing.
The amazing success of 3D printing in another sector strongly suggests it will. Biotechnology firms have taken great strides in creating living organs using 3D print systems – there have been successful transplants of a printed thyroid, bladder, and pelvis. A 3D printing service providing a full range of transplant organs is on the horizon. If materials can be printed to be viable as living tissue, then presumably similar tissues can become food with even greater ease.
Hod Lipson, a professor of engineering at Columbia University writes;
“someday consumers may choose from a large on-line database of recipes, put a cartridge with the ingredients into their 3D printer at home, and it would create the dish just for that person”.
A fully fabricated turkey may not be far behind.