3D printing technology may be set to enter a new realm, as NASA has shown interest in an idea to print food items through additive manufacturing.
NASA has awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I contract to Systems and Materials Research Consultancy (SMRC) of Austin, Texas to study the feasibility of using additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, for making food in space. SMRC will conduct a study for the development of a 3D printed food system for long duration space missions. The study will be six months long and is being funded for $125,000. A successful phase I study may result in a phase II study, which still will be several years from being tested on an actual mission in space.
NASA scientists are interested in the additive manufacturing of food because it could extend the shelf life of food supplies up to a period of 30 years. The space food currently in use by NASA has a shelf life of less than five years, which is not long enough for deep-space missions with current engine technology. “The current food system wouldn’t meet the nutritional needs and five-year shelf life required for a mission to Mars or other long duration missions,” NASA officials said in a statement. “Because refrigeration and freezing require significant spacecraft resources, current NASA provisions consist solely of individually prepackaged shelf stable foods, processed with technologies that degrade the micronutrients in the foods.”
Such technology may become necessary on Earth’s surface as well. “I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can’t supply 12 billion people sufficiently,” says Anjan Contractor, a senior mechanical engineer at SMRC. “So we eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food.” He envisions a time when the human population on Earth can no longer be supplied by traditional agriculture and food distribution methods, and will have to rely on 3D printing of food in order to reduce the amount of wasted food to the extent necessary to support as many as 12 billion people.
But regardless of whether an overpopulated world will need a primitive version of Star Trek’s replicator in order to avoid a Malthusian catastrophe, the printing of food from elementary components such as starches, sugars, and proteins could be the answer to the problem of how to provide nourishment for crews as they perform deep-space missions such as redirecting asteroids that are on a collision course, traveling to moons in the outer solar system, or mining asteroids for rare materials.