In May, NASA funded mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor and his company, Systems & Materials Research Corporation, with $125,000 to build a model of a 3D food printer. The model, which will be revealed sometime later this month, is designed to create a food beloved by both Home Alone's Kevin McAllister and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: pizza.
The plan is for Contractor's machine to print pies for astronauts during missions to Mars. Why pizza? Because it's made in distinct layers—perfect for a machine that can only produce one substance at a time.
The machine will first print a layer of dough that slowly bakes on a hot plate. While the dough is baking, the printer will squeeze out a layer of tomato sauce made from tomato powder, water, and oil. Finally, the printer creates a topmost “protein layer," which could consist of various alternative food sources, including algae, duckweed, grass, lupine seeds, beet leaves, and insects. It will take the printer approximately one hour to complete a pizza, although researchers hope to decrease the cooking time for convenience.
Adding to the many challenges faced in traveling to Mars and beyond is the fact that whatever food astronauts take with them will have to last a long time. “Long distance space travel requires 15-plus years of shelf-life,” Contractor said. Since all of the pizza ingredients will be in powder form, they will have a shelf life of up to 30 years.
Contractor originally developed a printer that would create a chocolate valentine for his wife, but he soon realized that 3D printing could have a global impact.
Beyond NASA, Contractor envisions a worldwide need for a food printer, since present food sources are unlikely to sustain growing populations. Contractor hopes to create software for the printers that would allow recipes to be traded and tweaked by each user before being downloaded by the machine.
However, not everyone is looking forward to the development of 3D printers. Earlier this year, lawmakers in Congress proposed passing legislation that would track the purchases and uses of printers. Some senators believe that criminals could use the 3D printers to print untraceable guns.
Others are more optimistic. Some researchers have developed plans for 3D printers that include printing organs and prosthetics for individuals who have suffered serious injuries. Others have suggested infusing the food printer "ink" with nutrients for people with special diets.