Is 3D-printed, shape-shifting pasta the future of food?

26 May 2017

Phytoplankton pasta salad with heirloom tomatoes and wild sorrel. Image: Michael Indresano Photography

In the near future, the pasta or noodles you buy in the store might actually have the ability to shape-shift into a variety of 3D structures.

A future where edible origami is constructed to meet the growing demand for food around the world has just become a real possibility.

In a new research project undertaken by MIT, a team of scientists has forged an attractive food production method that aims to get the most mileage out of a packet of pasta or noodles.

Pasta shapes

Morphing pasta shapes. Image: Michael Indresano Photography

To do this, the team from MIT’s Tangible Media Group used 3D printers to create flat sheets made from gelatine and starch, which, on the outset look normal, but actually involve some very clever engineering.

When submerged in water, the flat sheets have been designed in such a way that they instantly transform into a variety of different 3D shapes, including traditional pasta forms.

The team, led by Lining Yao, has even experimented with other shapes to see how creative they could get, resulting in flat discs that can wrap around beads of caviar, and even spaghetti that transforms into smaller noodles when placed in a hot broth.

Aside from being visually impressive, the project could prove to be especially interesting for the shipping industry and food retailers, as it could allow for more food to be shipped and stored than ever before.

Democratising noodles

For the consumer, all that would then be required is to put the pasta in water and watch it transform into the desired shape.

“We did some simple calculations, such as for macaroni pasta, and, even if you pack it perfectly, you still will end up with 67pc of the volume as air,” said Wen Wang, co-author on the paper. “We thought maybe in the future, our shape-changing food could be packed flat and save space.”

To achieve the morphing shape, the pasta sheets consist of a thicker top layer and thinner bottom layer of gelatine, which enables it to curl when submerged in water.

Then, with the addition of 3D-printed strips of cellulose, the pasta could be shaped in whatever way a consumer desires, as the substance absorbs very little water.

In the future, the researchers believe similar results could be created with more affordable screen-printing techniques.

“We envision that the online software can provide design instructions, and a start-up company can ship the materials to your home,” said Yao.

“With this tool, we want to democratise the design of noodles.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic