Is it Time for 3D Printed Food?

Why would you consider 3D printed food to be in the realm of nanotechnology?  Nanotechnology involves the usage of particles that are well below what we would consider required for food.  This is true.  In a previous blog, the work done on developing current food types are very large.  Most 3D printers are hard pressed to be accurate within a few microns, much less nanometers.

Before covering the need for nanotechnology, a review of existing equipment is useful  3D Systems [Ref. 1] has information on their Culinary Lab where experiments are being conducted on developing food the is both tasty and beneficial.  There is a web site [Ref. 2] that has a listing with examples of various types of food printers.  There was a 3D Food Printing Conference [Ref. 3] held in April 2016 in The Netherlands that addressed many aspects of food printing.  Most of the efforts currently are on producing exotic designs in the food.  There is mention of customized cakes of personalized desserts that are being commercially produced.  But, this is not a food benefit of 3D printing but a design benefit.

In a previous blog where I mentioned the Star Trek food replicator, the work being done today for NASA is directed at being able to supply food on deep-space missions.  When one considers the amount of food that would be required to support three people on an eighteen month round trip, the room required to store the food and the space to preserve and store it are not only large, but very expensive to lift out of earth’s orbit.   A demonstration of a 3D printer for food was demonstrated at a recent South by Southwest in Austin.  The startup, BeeHex, is working on converting dehydrated food particles into food with both flavor and texture. [Ref. 4]

One advantage of 3D printing of food is that it should be possible to supply nutritious food to people in very remote parts of the world.  One of the problems that exist today is that a significant potion of the food grown spoils before it reaches its intended market.  If the constituent parts could be shipped safely with danger of spoiling and then reconstituted into nutritious food, some of the hunger problem in the world would be addressed.  The European Union has a program called PERFORMANCE (Development of Personalized food using Rapid Manufacturing for the Nutrition of elderly consumers). [Ref. 5] This approach permits the addition of various nutrients needed by the person who the food is created for.  This was demonstrated in a conference in Brussels in October 2015.

NASA has a definite interest in developing this ability.  There was an SBIR award to an Austin, Texas company to begin the development of creating unflavored macronutrients, i.e., protein, starch and fat, the sustenance part of a required diet can be quickly produced in numerous shapes and textures from a 3D printer with heating capabilities. [Ref. 7]

This technique is also being investigated by various military organizations as a means of delivering quality meals in the field.  While the “Foodini” will only produce products made of dough, paste, of high viscosity liquids, this is the start of possible home appliances. [Ref. 8] The microwave comes to mind as a once expensive piece of equipment that is now common in many homes.

So where does the nano come into this picture?  The basic concepts of both handling food and handling nanomaterials come together.  Some of the materials will probably contain nanoparticles is a predefined portion to the entire volume.  This requires method of inspection and verification that currently are not defined.   There will need to be very specific procedures developed to ensure the proper mix of ingredients.  At this time, one can only guess one the various sizes will be required, but for many of the foods, printing very thin layers rapidly will be needed to create tasty and nutritious meals.  bon appétit!


  4. Austin American Statesman, April 22, 2016 edition, Tech Extra section, Page SA2.


About Walt

I have been involved in various aspects of nanotechnology since the late 1970s. My interest in promoting nano-safety began in 2006 and produced a white paper in 2007 explaining the four pillars of nano-safety. I am a technology futurist and is currently focused on nanoelectronics, single digit nanomaterials, and 3D printing at the nanoscale. My experience includes three startups, two of which I founded, 13 years at SEMATECH, where I was a Senior Fellow of the technical staff when I left, and 12 years at General Electric with nine of them on corporate staff. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, an MBA from James Madison University, and a B.S. in Physics from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

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