3D printing technology is moving into the kitchen. A 3D printer is about to enter the market and which means that preparing a handmade meal doesn’t take nearly as long as it used to.
You ever watch an old show set in the future and think, “I wish I had a time machine” or “I wish I had a food replicator?” For all the technological advances we’ve made, you’d think we’d have some of these things already, but we don’t. But before you start writing strongly worded letters to theater managers and television producers check out the latest development. A 3-D food printer has been created that is not unlike the replicators used in the original Star Trek television series (as well as in all the follow up films, series and spin-offs). So now that we have the ability to 3-D print food lets take a look at this fictional item we’ve been impatiently waiting for and compare the reality with the science fiction.
In Star Trek a replicator was a machine capable of creating (and recycling) objects. Replicators were originally seen used to synthesize meals on demand, but in later series they took on many other uses. Although previous sci-fi writers had speculated about the development of “replicating” or “duplicating” technology, the term “replicator” was not itself used until Star Trek: The Next Generation. In simple terms, it was described as a 24th century advancement from the 23rd century “food synthesizer” seen in Star Trek: The Original Series. The mechanics of these devices were never clearly explained on that show, but the subsequent prequel series, Star Trek: Enterprise, featured a 22nd-century version referred to as a “protein resequencer.” Additionally, that ship had a “bio-matter resequencer” which was used to recycle waste product into usable material.
A replicator works by rearranging subatomic particles, which are abundant everywhere in the universe, to form molecules and arrange those molecules to form the object. For example, to create a pork chop, the replicator would first form atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc., then arrange them into amino acids, proteins, and cells, and assemble the particles into the form of a pork chop.
This process requires the destructive conversion of bulk matter into energy and its subsequent reformation into a pre-scanned matter pattern. In principle, this is similar to thetransporter, but on a smaller scale. However, unlike transporters, which duplicate matter at the quantum level, replicators must be capable of a large number of different materials on demand. If patterns were to be stored at the quantum level, an impossible amount of data storage (or a set of original copies of the materials) would be required. To resolve this, patterns are stored in memory at the molecular level.
The drawback of doing so is that it is impossible to replicate objects with complicated quantum structures, such as living beings, dilithium, or latinum. In reality, neither living beings nor the cited elements do necessarily have a quantum structure inherently more complicated than other things. In the TNG episode “Allegiance”, aliens used their version of replicators to create a Picard impostor. Additionally, read/write errors cause a number of single-bit errors to occur in replicated materials. Though usually undetectable to human senses, computer scanning can be used to reveal these discrepancies, and they may explain the frequent complaint (by some gourmets and connoisseurs) that replicated food and beverages suffer from substandard taste. These errors also may cause a nontoxic material to become toxic when replicated, or create strains of deadly viruses and bacteria from previously harmless ones.
However, right now here in the 21st century 3D printing technology is moving into the kitchen. A prototype device developed by Natural Machines allows different types of food to be printed in 3D including chocolate and pasta. Foodini is a 3D printer that is about to enter the market and which means that preparing a handmade meal doesn’t take nearly as long as it used to. Foodini is a 3D printer that can do things such as build already-rolled pasta dough. So okay, it is not exactly a replicator that works by rearranging subatomic particles. But the device does let you choose from a number of recipes or build your own. To make ravioli, for example, prepare the dough and the filling, load them into the machine’s food “capsules” and select “ravioli” on the printer’s iPad-like interface. Foodini will then print the ingredients in the shape of fully-formed ravioli, and the only thing left to do is cook them. If your dish requires no cooking, then it’s ready to eat as soon as Foodini is finished.
Foodini can build anything from a quiche to chocolate in the shape of a snowman, which means it not only assembles complicated dishes faster than you could yourself, but also helps holiday party hosts design clever edible creations. Foodini, which was developed by startup Natural Machines, will cost around $1,300, but won’t be a behemoth in your kitchen. It’s built to look like a sleek microwave and is about the same size. The 3D printer will also be ready to prepare food as soon you take it out of the box, no assembly required.
So while not an actual replicator, Foodini’s main purpose is to take on the difficult and/or time-consuming parts of food preparation that often discourage people from creating homemade food, whether it’s in a home kitchen or a restaurant. Natural Machines expects to ship the first wave of its 3D printers in mid-2014.
Foodini home appliance image courtesy of natural machines