3D printing enables the fabrication of new types of food that cannot be produced any other way because of their complexity.
Credit Timothy Lee Photographers/Columbia Engineering

Universities around the world are taking food technologies to the next level. From 3D printing of edible foods to the processing of microalgae as a superfood to safeguarding it all with virtual reality training that puts you right in the middle of a “food plant,” it seems there’s little that can’t be created with a bit of brain power and ingenuity.

3D PRINTING OF FOOD. If the development of Columbia University Professor Hod Lipson and his students becomes a household item, that coffee-machine-looking appliance on your countertop may actually be a 3D printer that fabricates edible items and cooks pastes, gels, powders, and liquid ingredients into food.

The appliance, which fabricates food through computer-guided software, was designed by Lipson, a mechanical engineering professor, and his students, led by Drim Stokhuijzen, an industrial design graduate student visiting from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and Jerson Mezquita, an undergraduate student visiting from SUNY Maritime who is now a research associate in Lipson’s Creative Machines Lab (CML).

Although 3D printing is not intended to replace conventional cooking or be able to provide for all our nutritional needs, it fills a “missing link” that can bring the benefits of personalized data-driven health to the home, Lipson said. As co-author of “Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing,” Lipson sees 3D food printers as the “killer app” of 3D printing. “They will produce an infinite variety of customized fresh, nutritional foods on demand, transforming digital recipes and basic ingredients supplied in frozen cartridges into healthy dishes that can supplement our daily intake,” he said.

The 3D printing is essentially a vertical layering of components to create a solid. In the case of food, the layers may be composed of single ingredients or a mixture of ingredients, enabling individually accurate cooking times and temperature for each. The ingredients may begin as powders or pastes, with the powders bound with water to stick together into shapes, and pastes applied with syringes into the layers, Lipson explained. Just about any food can be processed into a powder or paste — from sugars to dough to cheese to fish. He sees two key motivations driving the 3D printing of food:

  1. For novelty foods: New types of food that cannot be produced any other way because of their complexity.
  2. For health foods: Specific types and amounts of nutrients imbedded as needed by a particular individual or on a particular day.
NCSU Creative Developer Elias Campbell (left) and Assistant Professor Clint Stevenson work on their development of a full-immersion virtual reality training session that allows participants to scout for safety violations in a virtual representation of a real-world food manufacturing facility.
Courtesy of Becky Kirkland/NC State University

However, with each food requiring not only building and cooking in the machine but also the “blueprint” recipe and cartridge “pod” containing the ingredients, 3D machines currently are targeted toward single-item development, Lipson said. The systems could be used for prototyping, and some culinarians are designing and building items such as cocktail garnishes and sugar structures for special events, but they are not yet geared for mass production.

There also are challenges in both quality assurance and food safety, he said. Because the machine is so complex, how do you make sure it is hygienic? “The few food printers you see are really prototypes right now; they have not addressed the food hygiene issue,” Lipson said, adding that the industry is still nascent; it needs to mature to be at a level that will be acceptable to FDA. For quality assurance, the key challenge is consistency. Progress is still being made in ensuring a food is produced the same way every time — at the proper time and temperature for proper cooking. The systems are not yet that reliable, he said. “It’s a new world in food; we’re not there yet. If it becomes commercial, we’ll have to address those.”

There is also the question of the business model, he said. “Is it a novelty or a fad, or is it serious. Will we really see them in people’s kitchens?”

The 3D printing of food takes a completely different way of thinking, Lipson said. At its most basic, it is similar to the development of pod coffee systems; there were a few false starts with espresso machines —until Keurig cracked the market and the machines are now common in home and office kitchens. But because of the complexity of 3D printers, he said, “It’s like an iPod without music. Until we had iTunes and digital music, the iPod was not an option. But once they came together, there was no turning back.” And in the same way that a pod coffee system makes one liquid cup of coffee or tea at a time from the powder in the pod, 3D printers may start out capable of producing one type of food — e.g., breakfast bars with some ingredient options in the pod, or pastries with various fruit options, etc.

But the question at the heart of consumer acceptance of any food is: How does it taste? To develop a food that people will want to eat, Lipson and his team are collaborating with the New York City-based International Culinary Center (ICC). Lipson and ICC Director of Food Technology and Culinary Coordinator Chef Hervé Malivert conduct workshops to integrate culinary creativity with technical knowledge to innovate new kinds of foods; develop novel textures, combinations, and spatial arrangements of basic ingredients that are currently viable; create new recipes; and unveil what food in 2025 might look like. “The engineers have tackled how 3D printing works, but now we turn to the kitchen experts to face the creative question of what can be made,” Lipson said.

Despite its nascent development and challenges, Lipson sees 3D food printing as a way of the future. “I’m a strong believer in this. I think it will take off on a decade or so,” he said.

VIRTUAL FOOD SAFETY. With continuing innovation in food technologies, there is the responsibility to keep both new and existing foods safe for consumption — which is exactly the purpose of the new virtual reality food safety training developed by North Carolina State University food scientists.

The simple donning of a virtual reality headset puts the student in the middle of a bustling food plant or restaurant, and looking up or down or turning around provides a 360-degree view of the facility. But N.C. State Food Science Researcher Clint Stevenson and his team took the training to an even higher level, developing full-immersion virtual reality training sessions that allow participants to interact with virtual representations of real-world food manufacturing facilities, scouting for safety violations.

The virtual reality recordings were made on-site at active businesses. Also compatible with standard tablet, mobile or desktop screens, the training enables food safety risks such as microbial contamination or pests to be digitally staged, and participants can use interactive buttons to look closer at “hot spots” to gather more information or answer quiz questions.

Along with Stevenson, who is an assistant professor and distance education coordinator in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, the team includes Virtual Reality Specialist Elias Clarke Campbell and instructional designers Bethanne Tobey and Julie Yamamoto. The work was partially funded by the N.C. State Office of Outreach and Engagement.

EATING ALGAE. With today’s too-often wasteful consumption of the earth’s resources, and an estimated 9.6 billion people expected to populate the world by the year 2050, sustainability is growing as a corporate focus across the food industry. But because it is expected that food production levels will need to be raised by 50% to feed that future world, sustainability isn’t simply about conserving currently used resources, but about developing new sources of food and feed. To that end, university researchers in Europe are focused on a new usage of an abundant natural resource: microalgae as a superfood.

Microalgae have numerous applications for food — as sources of protein and carbohydrates; for the sustainable production of natural pigments and antioxidants such as beta-carotene and astaxanthin; and synthesized into polyunsaturated fatty acids, which usually come from fish oil.

Commercial cultivation of microalgae for food is not new, but many factors hindered its growth.
ESKYmaks @ shutterstock.com

The commercial cultivation of microalgae, such as Chlorella or Spirulina (Arthrospira), for food is not new — going back more than 30 years, but there are a number of factors that have hindered its growth. Not only is consumer acceptance nearly as averse as it is for entomophagy (the consumption of insects as food; see QA’s July/August 2015 cover profile article, but production has traditionally been resource intensive and expensive. Among the university research for technological advancements to offset these is that of two European university research teams.

The first is a new method developed by algae specialist Professor Michael Melkonian and his team from the University of Cologne in Germany, which is promising to make commercial production easier and less expensive. The “Porous Substrate Bioreactor” (PSBR) system, also known as the twin-layer system, separates the algae from a nutrient solution by means of a porous reactor surface on which the microalgae are trapped in biofilms. By requiring less liquid to cultivate algae in suspensions, PSBR can cultivate more algae with less energy. (The findings were published in the journal Trends in Biotechnology.)

Another university group working toward technological advancements is the team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich). Led by the Institute’s Sustainable Food Processing Laboratory head, Professor Alexander Mathys, the researchers are collaborating with Bühler to design integrated biorefineries for the cultivation and processing of algae as a food source. The goal is not only to ensure a sustainable supply of food, but also to make it attractive for consumers. The high-quality protein-rich microalgae are particularly attractive as a resource because they do not compete with existing farming land, grow quickly, and take up little space.

Whole algae and algae extracts are consumed mainly in Asian countries and by some health-conscious consumers in the West. But broad appeal to western consumers will require integration in traditional foods without significant change in taste or texture.

Although a lot of questions remain about the industrial-scale cultivation, extraction, and processing of algae, the group demonstrated that the most cost-efficient mechanical method for rupturing algae cells today is by agitator bead mills. This wet-grinding technology is also used for manufacturing printing inks or paints. It allows gentle rupturing of the tough cell walls of algae for extraction and separation of the valuable constituents.

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.