Anjan Contractor, a mechanical engineer with a background in 3-D printing, foresees a day when every kitchen has a 3-D printer, and the earth’s 12 billion people feed themselves meals synthesized one layer at a time, from cartridges of powder and oils they buy at the corner grocery store.
QZ.com’s Christopher Mims claims Contractor’s company, Systems & Materials Research Corporation, recently received a six month, $125,000 grant from NASA to create a prototype of his universal food synthesizer, or 3-D food printer.
The powder in Contractor’s system is shelf-stable for up to 30 years, so each cartridge, whether it contains sugars, complex carbohydrates, protein or some other basic building block, would be fully exhausted before being returned to the store.
Under its Small Business Innovation Research program, Contractor’s initial grant from NASA is for a system that can print food for astronauts on very long space missions, such as Mars.
“Long distance space travel requires 15-plus years of shelf life,” says Contractor. “The way we are working on it is, all the carbs, proteins and macro and micro nutrients are in powder form. We take moisture out, and in that form it will last maybe 30 years.”
Contractor is currently designing a “pizza printer” that works by first “printing” a layer of dough, which is baked at the same time it’s printed by a heated plate at the bottom of the printer. A tomato base is then applied, which is also stored in a powdered form, and then mixed with water and oil.
Finally, the pizza is topped with a “protein layer” which could come from any source, including animals, milk or plants. The prototype for Contractor’s pizza printer, a simple chocolate printer, is included in this video, and helped him earn the grant from NASA.
Mims explains that in the future, we’ll be able to trade grandma’s box of recipes as software. “Each recipe will be a set of instructions that tells the printer which cartridge of powder to mix with which liquids, and at what rate and how it should be sprayed, one layer at time.”
Mims adds that this software exchange will be possible because Contractor plans to keep the software portion of his 3-D printer entirely open-source, so that anyone can look at its code, take it apart, understand it, and tweak recipes to fit.
The source of the food-based powders for 3-D printing could be derived from algae, duckweed, grass, lupine seeds, beet leafs, and insects, thus making it possible to turn just about any food-like starting material into an edible meal.
“One of the major advantage of a 3-D printer is that it provides personalized nutrition,” says Contractor. “If you’re male, female, someone is sick—they all have different dietary needs. If you can program your needs into a 3D printer, it can print exactly the nutrients that person requires.”
Contractor’s eventual goal is to turn his system for 3-D printing food into a design that can be licensed to someone who wants to turn it into a business.