With companies beginning campaigns to send vacationers to Mars, it’s time to start working out some of the logistics. One concern: How do you pack enough food to supply years-long space missions?
One company, Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC), believes the answer may be in 3-D food printing, and it has been selected to receive a $125,000 grant from NASA to construct a prototype.
“Long-distance space travel requires 15-plus years of shelf life,” Anjan Contractor, engineer with SMRC, told the news website Quartz. “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.”
SMRC would not comment on the project directly to ABC News.
Allard Beutel of NASA told ABC News that the agency is in “contract negotiations” with SMRC.
“As NASA ventures further into space, whether redirecting an asteroid or sending humans to Mars, we will need to make transformation improvements in our life support systems, including how we feed our astronauts during long, deep space missions,” said Beutel.
“[SMRC] has proposed a 3-D printed food system for long duration space missions,” Beutel added. “The proposal was selected for contract negotiation because of its merits in addressing NASA’s advanced food system technology needs as we prepare for long duration human space exploration. In-space and additive manufacturing offers the potential for game-changing weight savings and new mission opportunities, whether ‘printing’ food, tools or entire spacecraft.”
3-D printing is a process that usually involves layering materials like plastics, metals or rubbers as directed by a computer blueprint to construct items from the ground up – seemingly out of thin air.
Contractor’s vision for printing food is similar but, instead of using materials like plastics, the printer would construct the food with different, nutrient-rich materials – ones that are edible, of course.
Contractor even told Quartz that he will soon begin the development a “pizza printer.”
Contractor believes food printing could be useful outside of spaceships, too. Food printers could easily “program” our foods to meet regular diets, and address allergies or taste preferences.
Because most of the materials used for food printing would come in a powered form with a long shelf life, methods of food storage would become simple and food waste could be mitigated.
“I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can’t supply 12 billion people sufficiently,” Contractor told Quartz. “So we eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food.”
Hod Lipson, associate professor at Cornell University and co-author of the book, “Fabricated: The New World of 3-D Printing,” told ABC News that although it’s still a “nascent technology,” his group at Cornell has been experimenting with 3-D food printing, too.
“[3-D food printing] has the potential of making a large amount of food products. … And you can print food that has exactly the nutritional content that is desired.”
His group at Cornell has experimented with things like cube-shaped creations from powdered milk, he said, and it has even printed cookies with controlled sugar levels.
“That fact that food and biomaterials are beginning to enter the realm really brings a lot of new possibilities [to 3-D printing],” he said.
Below is a 2012 video of Anjan Contractor’s chocolate printer: