Say hello to the pasta of the future. It can be stored in flat sheets that save space but transforms into wonderful shapes when added to water. Researchers from MIT’s Tangible Media group have created 2D sheets of gelatin and cellulose that become 3D in water. The shapes are endless, you can have your favorite macaroni and rotini or completely new shapes like a flower or saddle. In addition to practically saving space, the noodles were used in several haute cuisine dishes. The taste needs some work to be more like pasta but the idea is what is really cool here.

So how does this magic happen? To make the flat surfaces change shape, researchers chose materials that absorb water differently. Gelatin naturally expands when it absorbs water, and expands differently depending on how dense it is. Two layers of gelatin were stacked on each other; the top was able to absorb more water than the bottom layer. When the film is immersed in water, the top layer bends over the bottom layer one and creates an arch.

The researchers wanted to create lots of different shapes. They added a layer of cellulose over the top gelatin layer. Cellulose doesn’t absorb much water controls how the flat noodle bends in water. The researchers created different shapes of noodle by changing the initial shape, thickness, density, etc. They could 3D print this layer on, and control the future shape of the noodle. They could have total control over the final shape. Starch and agar could also be used in the place of gelatin. There are many combinations possible.

Welcome to the future of transforming food. The researchers were inspired to create their pasta from watching this clip from the new Star Wars movie. Video credits: Klent Awesome Sauce.

The noodles are aesthetically interesting but also extremely practical. They could make pasta transport much more efficient. 3D pasta shapes can take up a lot of space. For example, the most efficient way that you could pack macaroni is made up of 67% air, though actually the amount of air is more. This shape-shifting pasta could be transported as sheets and then become 3D when prepared. The researchers are using the idea that IKEA popularized called “flat packaging” which involves distributing flat pieces and then the furniture is assembled at home. This flat pasta could save money on shipping costs and space like IKEA did. On a personal level, this pasta could be useful for people such as hikers or astronauts who need to optimize a lot of food in a small space, or in humanitarian dispatch transports.

Once they got the technology down, the research group paired with a fancy restaurant in Boston to create innovative dishes with the shape-changing pasta. The chefs and researchers created clear discs that wrap around caviar and longer noodles that split into smaller pieces on their own in hot broth. This noodle was made from two gelatins that melt at different temperatures, so one gelatin dissolves and divides the noodle. Other dishes featured the noodles flavoured with squid ink and plankton. Apparently, they tasted good. Watch this video for the results. Right now, the noodles aren’t officially pasta, they are a mix of gelatin and cellulose so the next step would be to make it more pasta-like. Then we could see an IKEA-like pasta revolution.

Research reference: Wen Wang, Lining Yao, Teng Zhang, Chin-Yi Cheng, Daniel Levine, and Hiroshi Ishii. 2017. Transformative Appetite: Shape-Changing Food Transforms from 2D to 3D by Water Interaction through Cooking. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ‘17). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 6123-6132.



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