Columbia University scientists are a step closer to Star Trek’s instant food replicators with their combination 3D-printed and laser-cooked chicken.
Engineers from Columbia University have worked out a way to simultaneously 3D print and cook puréed chicken to bring the techno-magic of Star Trek‘s food replicators one step closer to reality.
In a report from Wired, a team from the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia is credited with taking an earlier idea of theirs — 3D printing edible objects with mediums like cheese and peanut butter — and applying lasers as a cooking element for more nutritious and flavorful foods. Jonathan Blutinger, who co-authored the scientific paper outlining the experimentation, explained the motivation behind expanding on the idea. “Cooking is essential for nutrition, flavor and texture development in many foods, and we wondered if we could develop a method with lasers to precisely control these attributes.”
Using raw chicken breasts that were puréed until they were a uniform consistency, the scientists refrigerated the chicken mixture and then packed it into 3D printing syringes built to avoid clogging. They then assembled a cooking apparatus with a high-power blue diode laser, a custom 3D printing fixture and a removable tray for cooking the chicken. The team experimented with cooking the chicken both in sealed plastic packaging and out of it after adjusting the laser’s placement so simultaneous printing and cooking could occur on the same machine.
They ended up with surprisingly efficient results. The laser-cooked chicken retained more moisture and shrank less than conventionally cooked meat. Different lasers were even used to experiment with what sort of results they could provide, and it paid off for the team. Infrared lasers worked best for surface browning, and a blue laser was better for cooking the chicken internally. The plastic-packaged chicken had similar results, and the scientists/cooks were even able to replicate grill marks on it.
Of course, they also had to run taste tests to make sure it was actually edible. Stacking samples of both conventionally cooked and 3D-printed and cooked chicken against each other, a duo of taste testers preferred the latter. They found it to be moister with a better texture than the oven-cooked variety. That was even despite the “industry odor” one tester picked out in the laser-cooked food. “Ever go to the dentist and get fillings done? They have a laser they use to seal the fillings and you get that smell,” they said.
That net positive result was all the proof the scientists needed to publish their paper. While only chicken was used, the researchers are confident it will work with other meats or even grains. In the future, they plan to experiment with multiple wavelengths of lasers and hope to achieve a uniform exterior and interior cooking of the meat. Eventually, they may even create software that would enable home chefs to create their own meals at the press of a button. Hob Lipson, another author of the paper, sees a “Photoshop of food” in the future that Star Trek fans have been avidly waiting for decades to see.
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