Shapeshifting pasta

Programmable, shapeshifting pasta created by MIT researchers

Image credit: Michael Indresano Photography

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed flat printed food which spontaneously bursts into 3D structures when submerged in water. With their shape-shifting food, they hope to make dining more fun, “democratise the design of noodles”, and reduce the cost of food shipping.

The sheets of starch and gelatin transformed into 3D shapes when submerged in water, including familiar pasta shapes such as macaroni and rotini, but also more intricate shapes, such as flowers and saddles.

The team, from MIT’s Tangible Media Group, had been observing the response of materials to moisture. One particular type of bacterium, which is used in a popular Japanese food called natto, demonstrated the ability to shrink and expand in response to humidity. The researchers began to wonder whether other edible materials could be similarly made to change shape when exposed to water.

Gelatin naturally expands when it absorbs water, and can be made to expand to different extents depending on its density. The researchers exploited this feature to create the shapeshifting structures.

They began by creating a thin, two layer film made from gelatin of different densities. As the top layer was more dense than the lower layer, when submerged in water, the top layer expanded more, curling over the bottom layer to form an arch shape. By 3D printing strips of edible cellulose over the top layer, they were able to control how much water permeated the film. By changing the printed pattern of cellulose, they controlled the final shape assumed.

“This way you can have programmability,” said Lining Yao, lead author of the study. “You ultimately start to control the degree of bending and the total geometry of the structure.”

Phytoplankton pasta salad with heirloom tomatoes and wild sorrel

Michael Indresano Photography

Image credit: Michael Indresano Photography

Working alongside the head chef of a prestigious Boston restaurant, the researchers designed fettucini-like strips which melt apart when submerged in a hot broth to create smaller noodles, and transparent plankton and squid ink-flavoured discs which wrap around caviar.

According to Yao, they tasted “pretty good”.

Presenting their work at the 2017 Computer-Human Interaction Conference, they announced that aside from being “culinary performance art”, their work could help reduce the cost of food shipping, as the films are stacked together for shipping, only assuming their shape later on.

“We did some simple calculations, such as for macaroni pasta, and even if you pack it perfectly, you still will end up with 67 per cent of the volume as air,” said Wen Wang, a co-author of the study. “We thought maybe in the future our shape-changing food could be packed flat and save space.”

The researchers also created a database of the printed cellulose patterns, as well as geometric and mechanical information about the creations. They built computational models of the transformations to design an online user interface for citizens to design their own shapeshifting food, which could use screen printing rather than a 3D printer to lay down the cellulose pattern.

“We envision that the online software can provide design instructions, and a start-up company can ship the materials to your home,” said Yao. “With this tool, we want to democratise the design of noodles.”

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