Spinoff is NASA’s annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.
Crew health is critical to any successful mission and maintaining astronauts’ nutrition gets harder the farther they get from Earth and any chance of a resupply mission. A crewed mission to Mars, for example, will have to pack food for up to five years in space.
NASA currently supplies the International Space Station (ISS) with individually wrapped, shelf-stable dishes, many of which simply require heating in a food warmer. Space station astronauts can also choose from a variety of single-serving, freeze-dried side dishes and beverage packets that require hot or cold water be added. But these options are designed to last only six months in space and their packaging then becomes waste.
In 2013, NASA awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC), an Austin, TX-based company that proposed building food from scratch with a 3D printer that could deliver starch, protein, and fat, creating properly textured edible structures that would be supplemented with micronutrients, flavor, and aroma delivered by inkjet technology. Unflavored macro-nutrients like protein and starch would be stored as dry powders and fed directly to the 3D printer, where oil or water would be mixed in at the printhead. The micronutrients and flavors, stored in packets as liquids or pastes, would then be delivered by inkjet.
These nutrients, even in powder form, break down over time, so NASA’s food scientists needed a way to deliver precise amounts of nutrients, accounting for the inevitable degradation. Adding too much could result in nutrient toxicity, while too little could mean deficiency.
With the SBIR funds, Anjan Contractor, then a senior engineer at SMRC, successfully developed a system capable of printing some basic foods from powdered nutrients, oil, and other liquids. When Phase II SBIR funds to improve the nutritional components didn’t immediately follow, Contractor started thinking about other applications for 3D food printing. He began working on a 3D printer that could put together customized pizzas, with traditional (or even gluten-free cauliflower) dough, sauce, cheese, and toppings, one at a time. Pizza was a natural fit for 3D printing, which builds things layer by layer.
In 2016, he founded his own company, BeeHex, with the strategy to travel with the prototype doing tech demos and selling the results to people for lunch. After an Ohio State University football game, local media picked up the story, which drew BeeHex’s first seed funding — nearly $1 million from a restaurant chain that saw endless applications for the technology, from breakfast bars to confections and baked goods, in addition to pizza.
Contractor began working on a production-level prototype of his machine that could be customized for different tasks including adapting it to decorate cookies and cakes. While BeeHex isn’t the first to use 3D printing technology to make food and decorate cakes and confections, Contractor said his approach was informed by his work for NASA through SMRC.
The BeeHex printer, Chef 3D, can create protrusions and texture — the ribbon on the edge of a cake or a flower — designs that traditionally require skilled cake decorators. BeeHex is trying a variety of business models that includes a standalone machine that designs on-demand confections. BeeHex has other 3D-printed food technology in the pipeline such as a machine that can personalize a breakfast or lunch nutrition bar, depending on a person’s individual needs including genetics, metabolism, and blood markers.
The breakfast bar got a boost from research BeeHex is working on with the U.S. Army. “With that project, we collect the personal profile of soldiers — genetics, lactose intolerance or a gene presence that may trigger it, diabetes, or physical activity over the last seven days,” Contractor said. “Then we make the recovery bar.”
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