Scientists are developing a three dimensional (3D) food printer that can fabricate edible items through computer-guided software and the actual cooking of edible pastes, gels, powders, and liquid ingredients - all in a prototype that looks like an elegant coffee machine.
"Food printers are not meant to replace conventional cooking - they will not solve all of our nutritional needs, nor cook everything we should eat," said Hod Lipson from Columbia University in the US. "But they will produce an infinite variety of customised fresh, nutritional foods on demand, transforming digital recipes and basic ingredients supplied in frozen cartridges into healthy dishes that can supplement our daily intake, said Lipson. "I think this is the missing link that will bring the benefits of personalised data-driven health to our kitchen tables - it is the 'killer app' of 3D printing," he added. The printer is fitted out with a robotic arm that holds eight slots for frozen food cartridges. Researchers are now working on incorporating an infrared heating element into the arm.
According to Lipson, 3D printing is a universal technology that has the potential to revolutionise lives by enabling us to design and manufacture things with unprecedented freedom. "If we can leverage this technology to allow artificial intelligence tools to design and create new things for us, we can achieve immeasurable potential," said Lipson.
Unlike conventional oven cooking, the 3D printer will be able to cook various ingredients at different temperatures and different durations, all controlled by new software being developed by scientists. They are creating software that can predict what a 3D-printed shape will look like after it has been cooked for a specific time at a set temperature. Researchers are developing a volumetric material simulator that accounts for thermal transfer and the change of material phase (the food's viscoelastic properties) under heating/cooling conditions, in effect, attempting to replicate oven-cooking food.
3D food printing offers revolutionary new options for convenience and customisation, from controlling nutrition to managing dietary needs to saving energy and transport costs to creating new and novel food items, researchers said.
According to Lipson, it is the "output device" for data-driven nutrition and personal health, akin to precision medicine, with huge potential for a profound impact.