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It sounds like science fiction, but the Army is taking a real look at 3-D printing food, an idea that may lead to customizable meals for the battlefield with nutrient yields tailor-made to the individual service member, on demand.
“There really are no 3-D food printers printing out complex foods, so we would start at the very beginning,” said Lauren Oleksyk, who leads the Food Processing and Technology Team in the Defense Department’s Combat Feeding Directorate, at the Army’s labs in Natick, Massachusetts.
Researchers at Natick Labs say generating rations on-site would be a cheaper, more efficient alternative to bringing food in from overseas. The effort is in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Labs, and has the support of the other services.
The Army is already looking at using 3-D printers for building rapid prototypes out of plastic, concrete or metal, and even 3-D bioprinting that seeks to print skin cells on a patient recovering from war wounds.
What you need to know:
Starting with basics
One day, a 3-D printer at a base camp would provide soldiers with performance-boosting custom meals based on their operating environment or sensors they wear — without the logistical tail, packaging or waste of rations today. At first, scientists might more feasibly create a nutrient-rich porridge, or something uniform and simple, like a chocolate bar, before they figure out how to print a caramel chocolate bar, a hamburger or beef stew.
Customized for the troops
The goal is to enhance physical and cognitive performance through nutritionally balanced foods. With 3-D printed foods, a service member who isn’t getting enough protein, carbohydrates or fat could get a custom-made meal with extra Omega-3s, anti-inflammatories, extra fiber or reduced salt. “If they were deficient in certain vitamins or minerals, or could perform better with optimized nutrition, we could add things,” Oleksyk said.
Lighter load, less waste
Among the potential benefits, Oleksyk says, is that it could lighten troops loads by eliminating food and packaging waste. A printer does not carve an object out of plastic, it builds it exactly as it was designed, which means no waste — a technique Oleksyk says could apply to food.
When will it be ready?
Researchers must answer some big questions: Does a printer reduce a food’s nutritional content or otherwise alter its chemistry? How would the printer be kept sanitary and safe? Can they make the printer run quickly? The applied research project is set to launch in fiscal 2015 or 2016, designing and building with MIT a first-of-its-kind prototype 3-D food printer. The Army team would demonstrate its prototype in 2018 or 2019.
Will soldiers want to eat it?
The challenge will be making complex, shelf-stable foods appetizing to troops abroad. Making pizza, for instance, the printer could have individual nozzles that print the sauce, the dough and the cheese. Scientists plan to test the printed rations with military feedback, Oleksyk said, which means feeding some military folks. “Everything is war-fighter tested, war-fighter approved before it ever makes it into the field.”