By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - In a scene right out of Star Trek, a Texas company is developing a 3-D food printer for astronauts to create custom meals on the fly.
With support from NASA, the firm, Systems and Materials Research Corp of Austin, intends to design, build and test a food printer that can work in space.
"This project is to demonstrate we can create and change the nutrition of the food and be able to print it in a low-gravity environment," the company's research director and lead chemist, David Irvin, told Reuters.
Three-dimensional printers create solid objects by depositing droplets of material one layer at a time.
Systems and Materials intends to create nutritionally rich, aesthetically appealing and tasty synthetic food by combining powdered proteins, starches, fats and flavors with water or oil to produce a wide array of digital recipes.
All the ingredients are designed for extremely long shelf-lives, making them suitable for long stays in space.
"The 3-D printing system will provide hot and quick food in addition to personalized nutrition, flavor and taste," the company wrote in its proposal to NASA.
"The biggest advantage of 3-D printed food technology will be zero waste, which is essential in long-distance space missions," it added.
Ultimately, the company sees food printers as a way to help feed a world population that is estimated to reach 12 billion by the end of the century. The technology may also have implications for the military.
"A 3D-printed food system can reduce military logistics, disposal waste, increase operational efficiency and mission effectiveness especially during wartime," the company said.
"In addition, 3-D printed food can provide optimal nutrient to the soldiers depending on their personal needs and level of physical activities."
Eventually Irvin sees a day when food printers will play a role in everyday diet and nutrition.
"The initial plan is to work with NASA and the astronauts and then as things become commercially viable, we will definitely consider weight loss and weight gain" applications, Irvin said.
The company's six-month, Small Business Innovation Research study contract, worth up to $125,000, is pending, said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel.
"These are very early stage concepts that may or may not mature into actual systems. This technology may result in a Phase 2 study, which will still be several years from flight hardware," Beutel added.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Christopher Wilson)