Lecture shows 3-D printed food on way to becoming reality

Guest speaker Madhu Thangavelu gives a lecture on 3-D printing food for space missions May 3. Photo by Allie Camp.

Guest speaker Madhu Thangavelu gives a lecture on 3-D printing food for space missions May 3. Photo by Allie Camp.

A problem that astronauts face in space travel lies in finding storage space for food to last them their entire journey. A possible solution for this issue is printing out the food. While that idea may sound foreign, it will soon become a reality, said Madhu Thangavelu, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering.

Thangavelu discussed using 3-D printing technology to produce food in space during a lecture May 2 in the Hashinger Science Center.

“We all take it for granted but food is a vital part of life, not just for humans, but for all living things,” Thangavelu said, adding that it causes a problem with space travel because spacecraft have limited space. “You need a lot of food to carry with you on trips that last 300 days.”

Thangavelu asked those in attendance to imagine a flight that takes three months to reach its destination. On this flight, a person would take a nap, while his or her family at home cooks a dish for dinner. This dish would be analyzed by a robot, broken down, beamed to the 3-D food printer and then synthesized to create a copy of this meal.

“That is the dream,” Thangavelu said.

He said that there is still a long way to go before that dream can be accomplished.

Through a PowerPoint presentation, Thangavelu showed an image of what is currently the technology of 3-D printed food. The image depicted two gels, one green and one yellow, layered together to create a substance that vaguely resembled ham.

“Everything begins in a primitive and rudimentary fashion but it gets better over time,” Thangavelu said. “I promise you, it will get better.”

Currently, only liquids and gels can go through these food printers, but in the future, elemental materials such as amino acids may be mixed in the right ratio to create foods.

3-D printing is already in use to build rocket engines, Thangavelu said.

Thangavelu initially got involved in this research through a student of his, Michelle Terfansky, who was enrolled in his graduate space concepts studio class which has a goal of making creative products.

Terfansky wanted to focus on 3-D printing food. She named her project Space Culinary Additive Food Engineering, or Space CAFE.

“As we move along we are going to have longer, more intense missions, and we need diverse food available for the crew,” Thangavelu said.

The 3-D food printer would take up one storage rack and use the same amount of energy as a microwave oven and would provide the necessary nutrients the astronauts need, as well as giving them a social outlet, Thangavelu said.

“In groups like that,” Thangavelu said, referring to a photo of four astronauts eating together, “serious work gets done.”

Thangavelu went on to discuss current 3-D printing technology already being able to grow organs, cartilage and skin.

“Very soon you will see products that are completely animal free, but meat,” Thangavelu said.

This really caught the attention of Luz Rivera, a food science graduate student.

“It was interesting, I really liked learning more about the artificial meat printing process from an expert,” Rivera said.

Rivera had covered research on the topic and gave a presentation on it after the lecture for her class.

Many students in the class found the content of the lecture to be promising.

“I never heard about 3-D printing of food, but it will be great for the future,” said Nasim Kheshti, a food science graduate student.

3-D printing of food would not only help with providing nutrition, but with aroma, an important part of taste and comfort, Thangavelu said.

“Even if they tell you otherwise, food is king,” he said.

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