May 26, 2017 | By Benedict

Researchers at MIT’s Tangible Media Group have devised a method for 3D printing food that changes shape before you eat it. They say the weird shape-shifting food is also easier to store and transport.

MIT researchers have used a 3D printing method to create pop-up pasta shapes

A surefire way to get kids engaged with reading is to present them with a pop-up book. There’s never a dull page in sight, and the dynamic nature of the experience ensures that even the most lit-phobic kids can get into a story.

New research taking place at MIT suggests that a similar strategy could soon be taken with food. Kids refusing to eat your concoctions? A 3D printed pop-up dinner should get them interested.

The new food printing technology being developed by MIT’s Tangible Media Group is actually a little more complex than it sounds, but the expert scientists have essentially been playing with their food to make it more fun. Who wouldn’t?

Their unusual new method for creating interactive, moving dishes involves the use of flat sheets of gelatin and starch that turn into 3D structures when exposed to water. These 3D structures include classic pasta shapes like macaroni and rotini, as well as weirder forms and structures.

A paper detailing the researchers’ findings was presented at this month’s 2017 Computer-Human Interaction Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. In the paper, the MIT scientists explain the advantages of their food 3D printing method. They say such dishes are not only entertaining, but are also highly convenient for storage and shipping, potentially reducing the cost of food transport by a significant margin.

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

The 3D printing technique was used to create several elaborate dishes

The crazy 3D printed foodstuffs came about almost by chance. Wang and lead author Lining Yao had been working together for a long time, studying how various materials respond to moisture. An important part of their work involved working with bacterium that can transform its shape, shrinking and expanding in response to humidity. (Sound familiar? Yesterday we saw how the same team of researchers used bacteria to create incredible biological workout clothes.)

With this particular area of the research, the duo were experimenting with gelatin, a substance that expands when it absorbs water.

Yao and Wang made a flat, two-layer film made from gelatin of two different densities, since density affects how much the substance expands when exposed to water. They found that, by giving one layer a greater absorbing power, the entire structure would “curl up” over the layer with less density.

This discovery opened up a world of food-making opportunities.

To achieve a high degree of control over their gelatin shapes, Yao and Wang 3D printed strips of edible cellulose over the top gelatin layer. Since these cellulose strips absorb very little water, they act as a “barrier,” controlling exactly how much water the layer of gelatin is exposed to, and where. By 3D printing this cellulose strips in intricate patterns, the researchers found they could make their creations turn into a range of different shapes.

The MIT scientists used a 3Drag 3D printer chassis with a Velleman 8400 control board using Marlin firmware, adding Choco syringe extruders from Futura Group to enable the 3D printer to print foodstuffs. In terms of software, the researchers used Hot-World’s RepetierHost and Slic3r.

“This way you can have programmability,” Yao explained. “You ultimately start to control the degree of bending and the total geometry of the structure.”

The researchers created a number of shapes using the 3D printing technique, including traditional pasta shapes and more original forms like flowers and horse saddles. They even showed their creations to the head chef of a high-end Boston restaurant, eventually collaborating on two highly unusual dishes.

The researchers have discovered how certain 3D printed shapes will transform when exposed to water

The first of these dishes consisted of transparent discs of gelatin flavored with plankton and squid ink. These discs would instantly wrap around small beads of moist caviar when coming into contact with them. The second dish consisted of long fettuccini-like strips made from two gelatins that melt at different temperatures. This mixture of gelatins causes the noodles to divide, seemingly of their own accord, when hot broth touches certain areas.

“They had great texture and tasted pretty good,” Yao reported.

Amazingly, the researchers think they have found a way to predict exactly how the 3D printed foodstuffs will behave when they touch moisture. By building computational models of a number of transformations, the scientists now have an online interface which people can use to design their own shape-shifting foods.

“We did many lab tests and collected a database, within which you can pick different shapes, with fabrication instructions,” Wang said. “Reversibly, you can also select a basic pattern from the database and adjust the distribution or thickness, and can see how the final transformation will look.”

Given how exciting this culinary project sounds, it’s no surprise to hear that Wang and Yao already have one eye on commercializing their research.

“We envision that the online software can provide design instructions, and a startup company can ship the materials to your home,” Yao says. “With this tool, we want to democratize the design of noodles.”

The researchers’ paper, “Transformative Appetite: Shape-Changing Food Transforms from 2D to 3D by Water Interaction through Cooking,” is available to read here.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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