Where's My Food Replicator?
In Star Trek, it was the food replicator, doling out Earl Grey on command. In The Jetsons, it was a Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle, which could produce whatever the space-age family was in the mood form with the push of a button. In reality, it's a 3-D printer .
The sci-fi wish of instantly-available, fully-cooked meals is getting closer. And we're not just talking about microwavable frozen meals. The technology enabling the dream is a 3-D printer that various researchers are developing that can make three-dimensional objects with everything from soft plastics to ground turkey. It's not quite an instant food machine, but a 3-D food printer could be coming to a bakery or home near you well within the decade. Even better, the applications go far beyond dinnertime.
"It's the idea of leveraging all of this 1980s technology and making it available to every day people, said Jeff Lipton, Lead investigator at Cornell University's Fab@Home project and a mechanical engineer PhD student. "It's like the personal computer revolution back in the day."
The 3-D printers that Lipton and his Fab@Home researchers are working on are a combination of a chassis, tool heads and electronics all of which are off the shelf components in the simplest version. There is also software that is open source.
The machine in many ways is like the ink-jet printer you already have at home. The same way you might use a software program to design a party invitation or graphics and then print it out the 3-D printer that is part of the Fab@Home project allows users to design 3-D items in the software then hit print.
The machine layers the material and it can be anything as long as it's soft until the item is fully printed. Working with the French Culinary Institute, the team at Cornell printed a really thick corn chip that was perfect for frying. They also made a scallop space shuttle (also deep fried, and reportedly delicious). In homage to George Jetson, they also printed a turkey using ground turkey. Of course, unlike the Jetson's, then they had to put in the oven the old-fashioned way.
The first application is not likely to be in meat, however, but baked goods. One of the first items they printed was dough from an old Austrian Christmas cookie recipe. Instead of a run-of-the-mill cookie, it had a C for Cornell printed in the middle. It is that sort of flair that the wedding cake and bakery market is interested in.
"There's a huge market for customization and personalization," Lipton told InnovationNewsDaily.
The current limitations of the printer are that it can't handle solid items like raw vegetables or strips of meat, and you have to load the cartridges with the materials yourself (it can't pull them out of the atmosphere, Star Trek style). And as for that pesky step of having to cook it yourself, well, eventually this could be integrated into your oven.
Lipton said that because many researchers at various organizations are working on the technology, it will likely be available in homes at the same time it would be available to commercial bakeries. For the do-it-yourself set, open source materials, like what Cornell provides, means you could build one yourself.
It's not just about playing with your food. 3-D printing could have vast implications for health care. Researchers, like those at Wake Forest University, are working on 3-D bioprinting. Instead of loading cookie dough into a 3-D printer, doctors could use lab-grown cartilage or organ cells and produce new padding for a knee, a heart valve or an entire kidney. Although there are various methods under investigation, it will likely be decades before there are clinical applications. The machines are also already being used in schools and labs for students to be able to design and build their own products (but not body parts).
As for more entertaining, and tasty, 3-D printing, the future is here.
"We use the machine as a very intelligent, steady set of hands," said Lipton. "After all, people love to play with their food."
This story is part of our series "Where's My Future?" that looks at areas of technology that have failed to catch up with the predictions of science fiction. The rest of the series can be found here.