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Burritos in the Space Time Continuum

Lauren Topor on Flickr

You may have heard of 3D-printed food, a form of additive manufacturing, where edible ‘ink’ is layered to create an item of food.

What about 4D-printed food? It sounds like it belongs in Back to the Future, but researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne are working on a new iteration of 3D-printed food with an added dimension: time.

“Sometimes we forget we’re in a 4D environment,” says Professor Benu Adhikari, a researcher in food engineering and processing. “The time dimension is always there, even if we don’t see it or feel it.” In the same way that we humans and the environment around us change over time, 4D printing means the shape of a 3D-printed material could change over time, too.

“For example, I could 3D-print a candy in the shape of a lotus flower that hasn’t yet bloomed,” explains Benu. “4D printing means I could control the time dimension so that by the time it’s opened by the consumer, the lotus has bloomed.”

It sounds like magic. And it is, kind of…the magic of science.

“Plants change color when the pigment inside the leaves changes, due to the weather,” explains Benu. “In the same way, in our work we’re formulating a printing ‘ink’ for our 3D-printed food that changes, depending on the timeframe or the environment.”

This means a 4D-printed food might change shape or color when triggered by factors like humidity, heat, or microwave energy. As well as giving variety and excitement to consumers, Benu says this technology could have uses in the mechanical or fabrication industries. There’s also potential for 4Dprinted foods to help people with dysphagia, meaning they have difficulty swallowing foods.

Above that, however, Benu says his research is about learning and opening up new possibilities that we may never have otherwise considered.

“In the 1940s, the microwave oven was invented by accident, by someone working on radar systems. Now, every household has microwaves,” says Benu. “When you undertake research, you never know what applications it might open up, in the future.”

4D Food Sidebar: Print Me Out a Burrito, Please


Okay, we’re not quite there, yet. But 3D food printing is a thing that’s really catching on. From pizza and pancakes to gourmet desserts with fancy designs, there’s a big appetite for this technology.3D Food printing works like any other 3D technology. A squishy, viscous substance is fed into the printer’s syringe and programmed to deposit the substance layer after layer upon a surface to create the final object. Sounds scrumptious, yes? It’s not so bad, really. 3D foodies use delicious edible stuff like dough, purées, chocolate, frostings, cheeses, and even raw meat.Some foods require precooking or pre-smushing before being sculpted into their final form, and some items need to be cooked afterward (with the exception of the PancakeBot which extrudes the batter onto a hotplate).

Where 3D food printing shines is in creating intricate shapes and designs that would take way too long to do by hand. It also has benefits in healthcare. Patients with restricted diets can easily have their food customized (and printed) with all of the nutrients they need. Once technology finds a way to cut back on the time it takes to mass produce 3D food and the cost of equipment and ingredients, you just may have that burrito. You better print out a few copies.

Learn More

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