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Sushi in space? Japanese project develops high-tech food printer

  • November 4, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 2:555 p.m.
  • English Press

YUTA SHIMONO, Nikkei staff writer

 

TOKYO — Humans have succeeded in sending people and animals into space. Japanese companies are now putting their minds together to see if they can instantly “teleport” gourmet food to the heavens and other faraway places.

 

A project called Open Meals, led by Japanese ad powerhouse Dentsu, is researching and developing 3D printers and base materials that can build food, in an effort to realize such food transfer in the near future.

 

Open Meals was launched in 2016 by Ryosuke Sakaki, an art director at Dentsu’s Creative Planning Division 3, to revolutionize the way food is prepared. In 2050, according to Sakaki’s vision, astronauts working in a spaceship will be able to enjoy sushi prepared by famous chefs in Tokyo.

 

By inviting a wide range of researchers and businesses to join his project, Sakaki has been expanding the scope of his quest to use cutting-edge digital technologies to transform the way people produce, distribute and consume food.

 

Take “digital oden,” for instance. Oden is a traditional Japanese winter stew with a variety of ingredients, such as fish balls, fish cakes, deep-fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, konnyaku (devil’s tongue gelatin) and vegetables, simmered in a soy sauce-based dashi broth. To prepare digital oden, Dentsu’s system uses taste sensors and a 3D scanner to gather information about the tastes, flavors, textures and shapes of oden ingredients and then reproduces oden dishes using gel-like materials.

 

The technology at the heart of these innovations is 3D food printing, the application of industrial technologies to food.

 

The technology of 3D printing is a process of additive manufacturing in which solid three-dimensional objects are constructed from fine layers of specially formulated material. As the technology has become more efficient and less expensive, 3D printing has expanded into new fields, including not only manufacturing but also making medical materials — and now food.

Sakaki’s idea was inspired by how inkjet printers can print all kinds of posters, photos and documents by using just four colors of ink: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. He tried to apply this approach to creating food.

 

Sakaki selected sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness as the four basic tastes and tested how the color printing approach could be applied to making food. He put such seasonings as soy source and vinegar into ink cartridges and tried “printing” food onto edible paper made from corn. The trial showed that the taste changed as the ratio of the seasonings changed. He thought that a database on how various ratios of the basic tastes create specific flavors would make it possible to remotely reproduce food with a printer.

 

In the “sushi teleportation” project, a specialized 3D food printer being developed jointly with Yamagata University and other organizations was used. The printer has a water tank and cartridges that can be filled with materials to create tastes, colors and nutrients, and uses a gel-like material to create various textures. Food dishes are created by building up a series of small printed cubes into the appropriate forms.

 

Many technological challenges need to be overcome, however, before the technology reaches the stage of practical use. To reproduce the shapes of food accurately, the food “ink” droplets must be as small as possible — but the smaller the droplets, the more likely the food is to crumble. The prototype 3D food printer propels droplets that are about 5 mm in diameter — not fine enough to accurately re-create a shape. In addition, even such a relatively coarse approach takes time. It takes the machine 20 to 30 minutes to make one piece of sushi. Sakaki admits that many issues have to be sorted out before the system can be used commercially, including speed, cost and texture.

 

Currently, Sakaki is working with multiple food makers and other businesses to develop a new type of 3D food printer and base materials suitable for the machine, and he says the time required to make food with a 3D printer could possibly be cut sharply. The Dentsu art director is aiming to demonstrate a new 3D food printer at Expo 2025, a world exposition to be held in Osaka.

 

Technology for “food teleportation” would make it possible for people at different places to enjoy the exact same dishes. Sakaki predicts that automatic cooking with a 3D food printer using data on various dishes will be the norm around 2030. He even envisions a future in which all kinds of foods — including exquisite dishes from famed restaurants — will be re-created accurately by printers. That future will arrive around 2050, he says.

 

Open Meals’ “sushi teleportation” system created a sensation when it was demonstrated in 2018 at the SXSW (South by Southwest) annual music, film and interactive media conference in Austin, Texas.

 

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration has clearly taken an interest in 3D food printing and in 2013 gave a grant to the Texas-based startup Systems and Materials Research for developing a 3D food printer for astronauts to create custom meals literally on the fly. NASA was clearly intrigued by the potential of the technology to make food easily in space, which could be quite handy for astronauts staying in a space station for long periods of time.

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