May 19 2022

DARPA Plans to Make Replicators for Real

3D printing could provide edible 'biomass' in areas where food is scarce.

The federal government has taken 3D printing into new realms, using the technology to create entire barracks, medical face shields, organ and tissue replicas, and even a duplicate of Neil Armstrong’s space suit. Next stop: the kitchen.

Both the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA are looking for ways to create healthy, long-lasting food that could feed astronauts, ­submariners, disaster victims and people who live in “food deserts” with little access to nutritious food.

DARPA already has a Living Foundries program, designed to create special ­molecules that could build military ­applications such as high-energy fuels, decontamination wipes for biological or chemical accidents, and airplane parts.

Its ReSource program looks to do the same with mixed waste, turning that material into necessary items such as lubricants, adhesives and even what DARPA calls “edible macronutrients,” for consumption on the battlefield, where supplies may be limited.

Phase 1 ended last year with ­successful proof-of-concept studies that developed ways to break down and ­convert the waste; phase 2 will look for ways to convert waste that work under less-than-optimal conditions, with less power and with more waste.

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The researchers hope to be able to create either lubricants or food from mixed waste. “There is more energy in the ­packaging of an MRE than in the MRE itself,” says Blake Bextine, the ReSource program manager.

DARPA’s new Innovative Nutritional Formulations program will expand this concept beyond the battlefield, providing food for people in areas where resupply is difficult or impossible, including ­disaster areas or places where the 
supply chain is broken.

The “resulting biomass,” which could be powder, paste or liquid, should be compatible with portable 3D printing technology. “The food will be evaluated for safety and its taste profile,” reports GCN, “though DARPA says the product should be assessed through chemical analysis, rather than by eating it.”

Meanwhile, NASA, along with the Canadian Space Agency, is running the Deep Space Food Challenge, which comes with a total of $1 million in prize money for the teams that create food ­production technologies that can make something edible — or at least nutritional.

The program is aimed at finding ways to provide Mars-bound astronauts with something to eat besides prepackaged food, but NASA believes the technology can be used to bolster disaster and humanitarian relief efforts on Earth.

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