3D Printed Food: Cooking with Lasers

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As it stands, food 3D printers generally lack a key ingredient: the ability to cook the food they print. This isn’t entirely true, in that some devices like the PancakeBot print directly onto a hotplate, but the extant cooking process is not widespread nor refined. Food printers, therefore, either make food that does not need to be cooked or necessitate subsequent cooking operations in order to finish the job (post-processing, if you will). To get food printing beyond this current stage, the technology might require lasers.

Perhaps most notable for its work with laser-based cooking in the food printing space is Hod Lipson, whose Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University is exploring the use of lasers to apply precise and controlled heat to food. The team has used mid-infrared, near-infrared and blue lasers to cook such foods as dough, chicken, salmon and vegetables. The wavelength of the laser helps determine how deep the heat from the laser can penetrate the food, with blue lasers better tailored for penetrative cooking and infrared lasers more equipped for browning food surfaces.

In one instance, the team invented a process it calls “selective laser broiling”, in which a two-axis mirror galvanometer was used to direct a blue laser to broil a piece of salmon, using a specific scanning pattern and modulating the properties of the laser to impact the cooking process. The circle diameter, density and period of the laser was modified, as was the heat and power. With this, the researchers were able to penetrate about 2 mm into the salmon and cook the fillets up over a food safe temperature of 62.8 °C/145°F.

In other examples, the lab has applied a carbon dioxide mid-infrared laser (operating at 10.6 μm wavelength) to brown dough made of flour and water and developed a software for using this ability to control the look and texture of such dough samples. A blue laser was also used to cook the dough more fully. Specifically, pieces that were 1 mm thick and 5 mm in diameter were baked all the way through and at rapid rates of 4000 mm per minute.

Lipson’s researchers suggest that multiple lasers could be combined for an optimal cooking process or might be used to augment existing appliances, such as microwaves to introduce controlled browning to the surfaces of foods.

As far out as the technology from the Creative Machines Lab seems, the ability to 3D print and cook food using built-in laser systems is not as far from commercial reality as one might think. Natural Machines, the Barcelona-based manufacturer of the Foodini food 3D printer, announced in February that it will be integrating laser-based cooking into its next generation system, the FoodiniPro.

The existing version is able to heat its stainless-steel food capsules, in order to maintain proper food safety and prevent bacteria from growing. The next model will actually be able to cook the food it prints or non-printed food. Developed over the course of the last six years, the FoodiniPro’s laser cooking technology relies on artificial intelligence and infrared vision to digitally monitor the “doneness” of the food.

The process is different from what has so far been exhibited by the Columbia lab. While Natural Machines co-founder Lynette Kucsma wasn’t able to go into too much detail about how it works, she did say that it can cook food, such as a burger or salmon filet, all the way through. If applied during the printing process with, say, cracker dough, it’s possible to print in midair (similar to some wire arc AM applied with metals and polymers).

Kucsma points out that the benefits of this process aren’t limited to unique geometries. She suggests that this cooking process uses 90 percent less energy than used with ovens. Due to the targeted nature of laser heating, it’s not necessary to bake the entire build chamber, but only focus energy onto the ingredients themselves, which also means that the technology can cook at lower temperatures overall.  The plate isn’t even hot when it comes out of the machine.

Cooking with lasers in FoodiniPro (Image: Natural Machines)

Additionally, less water and oil are necessary, which not only good for conservation but also means potentially less greasy, healthier foods. And while it’s possible to laser grill marks onto a steak, the carcinogens associated with the grill are made obsolete.

The company has industrialized prototypes in its office; however, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down the commercialization process. As the company finalizes the industrialization of its designs, Kucsma expects beta machines to be in the hands of customers in 2021. After that, it will first be placed with commercial kitchens before heading to a broader consumer audience.

“We’re following a typical, let’s say kitchen appliance marketing strategy, which is where it goes into commercial kitchens first. Then, it will start bleeding into the consumer usage. That happened with microwaves, food processors, all of those types of things. So, you’ll see the same thing happening with this, as well. We do have a number of our commercial kitchen clients who are already in lined up to have the cooking device as well.”

When this author began writing about food 3D printing nearly eight years ago, it was hard to imagine how the technology would get from printed pastes to fully cooked meals. Apparently, all that was needed was some lasers, advanced machine vision technology and numerous years of tireless work on the behalf of innovating individuals. It’s difficult to predict very much in the world these days, including the way modern consumers live their lives, but if post-industrial society does return to any semblance of what it deems normalcy, we may one day see food 3D printers become a mainstay of common households the way that microwaves have.

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