ABIC speaker profile: Science fiction closer to reality: David Irvin and 3D printed food

Posted on September 02, 2014

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Rarely do molecular gastronomy, space-aged technology and agricultural waste get mentioned in the same breath. But Dr. David Irvin, Director of Research at Systems & Materials Research Corporation in Austin, Texas, expects to change that. His talk at the 2014 Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC) in Saskatoon (October 5-8) will focus on 3D Printed Food: From Nouveau Gastronomy to Basic Nutrition.

Irvin will be presenting information on the current state of the art and some possible futures of 3D printing, with the aim of encouraging ideas, discussion and collaboration.

Considering that 3D printing of food sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, it should come as no surprise that NASA has contracted Systems & Materials Research Corp. to study the possibility of using 3D printing of food for long-term space missions. But Irvin and his co-inventor Anjan Contractor assure that the earthly applications of the technology are no less promising.

“According to the United Nations Environment Program, roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year�??approximately 1.3 billion tons�??gets lost or wasted,�? he says. “If just half of that waste could be dried, transported, and processed via 3D printing, it would result in three times the amount of food production required to feed the population of sub-Saharan Africa.�?

That reality is a long way off. Currently, 3D printing is affordable for the production of plastics, but in the case of food, there are still issues with developing appropriate ‘ink’, as well as the challenges of cleaning and sterilization of the printer itself between printings. To date, sugar, pasta, chocolate and even mealworm protein have been processed using 3D printing techniques.

The process involves printing a desired food shape using multiple layers of edible ‘ink’ made up of food powders, and then baking into a final product.

Parallel developments in the area of nutrigenomics�??the study of customized nutrition to address each individual’s unique genetic makeup and subsequent nutritional needs�??have led NASA to pursue 3D printing as a possible method of creating personalized diets for its astronauts, using methods that preserve the nutrient value of food products and create a palatable and recognizable food item.

“Turning safe but not first-grade foods into powdered commodities that can be stored for long periods of time and then reconstituted via 3D printing is within our grasp,�? he says. “Yes, it seems farfetched�??but so was canning and freezing, once upon a time.�?

3D printing, while an emerging technology today, has the potential to address worldwide food security issues�??both here on earth, as well as in space. “As the population increases, the need to produce, store, transport, and process food will only increase,�? says Irvin. “Any process or device that will help meet the goal of increasing available food will find a place in the marketplace.�? 

Visit the ABIC 2014 website for more information and to register. Early-bird ends September 5, 2014.

Dr. David Irvin
Director of Research, Systems & Materials Research Corporation in Austin, TX