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In a step toward bringing to reality one of the most intriguing technologies featured on “Star Trek,” researchers from Columbia University recently published a paper titled “Precision Cooking for Printed Foods via Multi-wavelength Lasers.”

The food replicator in the TV show generated preprogrammed food and beverages, such as Lt. Worf’s potent chech’tluth beverage or Captain Picard’s favorite Earl Grey tea, by altering matter.

A concept rendering of a digital cooking appliance that offers dozens of ingredients and a precise cooking laser for assembling and cooking meals using digital recipes (top). A blue laser cooks a chicken sample (bottom). Courtesy of Jonathan Blutinger/Columbia Engineering.


A concept rendering of a digital cooking appliance that offers dozens of ingredients and a precise cooking laser for assembling and cooking meals using digital recipes. Courtesy of Jonathan Blutinger/Columbia Engineering.

While the technology developed at Columbia doesn’t quite alter matter, the device does resemble a predecessor of the replicator.

Mechanical engineering professor Hod Lipson and the “Digital Food” team of his Creative Machines Lab have been building an autonomous digital personal chef. The technology both prints and cooks food. While food printers have been around for more than a decade, commercial cooking appliances that simultaneously print and cook food layers are not yet fully baked. One key challenge has been achieving spatial control over the delivery of cooking energy.

While culinary printers can produce ingredients to millimeter precision, most heating methods applied to 3D-printed products lack a comparable degree of resolution, said Jonathan Blutinger, a doctoral student in Lipson’s lab who led the project.

“Cooking is essential for nutrition, flavor, and texture development in many foods,” he said. “And we wondered if we could develop a method with lasers to precisely control these attributes.”

A blue laser cooks a chicken sample. Courtesy of Jonathan Blutinger/Columbia Engineering.


A blue laser cooks a chicken sample. Courtesy of Jonathan Blutinger/Columbia Engineering.

The Columbia team wanted to investigate the feasibility of using lasers to print and cook food in tandem. Using puréed chicken as the base ingredient for the printer, the team explored using a blue diode laser that emitted at 445 nm as the primary heating source. The researchers also tested NIR lasers emitting at 980 and 1060 nm.

While the blue laser was better suited to cooking the interior, the IR lasers browned the surface better. They ultimately found a combination of lasers that enabled them to develop a platform that could print fully cooked chicken.

They assessed the chicken according to a range of parameters, including cooking depth, color development, moisture retention, and flavor differences between laser-cooked and stove-cooked meat. They found that laser-cooked meat shrank the printed product 50% less, retained double the moisture content, and exhibited similar flavor development compared to conventionally produced and cooked meat.

“In fact, our two blind taste testers preferred laser-cooked meat to the conventionally cooked samples, which shows promise for this burgeoning technology,” Blutinger said.

While Lipson and Blutinger expressed excitement about the possibilities of the new technology, whose hardware and software components are fairly low-tech, they said no sustainable ecosystem exists yet to support it. The next step might be to develop software that Lipson described as a “food CAD.”

“We need a high-level software that enables people who are not programmers or software developers to design the foods they want,” he said. “And then we need a place where people can share digital recipes like we share music.”

Could we one day be downloading recipes on Snackster or browsing in the App(etizer) Store?

Photonics Spectra
Nov 2021
columnsLighter Side

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