Columbia engineers cook 3D printed chicken with robotic lasers

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Engineers from the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science have developed a method of cooking 3D printed chicken with software-controlled robotic lasers.

The “Digital Food” team of Mechanical Engineering Professor Hod Lipson’s Creative Machines Lab explored various ways of cooking by exposing raw 3D printed chicken structures to both blue and infrared light. They then assessed the cooking depth, color development, moisture retention and flavor differences of the laser-cooked 3D printed samples in comparison to stove-cooked meat. 

“We noted that, while printers can produce ingredients to a millimeter-precision, there is no heating method with this same degree of resolution,” said Jonathan Blutinger, a PhD student in Lipson’s lab and leader of the project. “Cooking is essential for nutrition, flavor, and texture development in many foods, and we wondered if we could develop a method with lasers to precisely control these attributes.”

Now we’re cooking with lasers

Lipson’s lab has been experimenting with 3D printed food since 2007, and in this time the team has progressed to developing multi-ingredient prints. Now, the engineers are seeking to create suitable technologies for the cooking of 3D printed foods that stand their ground in terms of texture and flavor alongside traditionally-cooked meats. 

The team chose chicken as a model food system for their study, and after blending the chicken into a purée they 3D printed samples of three millimeters thick by one square inch layer-by-layer. They then exposed the 3D printed chicken samples to both blue and infrared light from lasers, and discovered that blue light was favorable for cooking the inside of the chicken, while the infrared light was best for browning the meat’s surface.  

Two types of infrared lasers were used during the process, one near-infrared (NIR) and the other a mid-infrared (MIR), with NIR found to be capable of browning and cooking foods through packaging.

The engineers assessed several parameters of the cooking process, including cooking depth, color development, moisture retention, and flavor, and compared the differences between laser-cooked and stove-cooked meat. The team observed that their laser-cooked chicken structures shrank 50 percent less than their stove-cooked counterparts, while retaining double the moisture content. 

The laser-cooked 3D printed samples also reportedly displayed similar flavor development to traditionally cooked meat, with the study’s two blind taste-testers preferring the laser-cooked meat to the conventionally cooked samples.

A 3D printed chicken sample being cooked by a blue laser. Photo via Jonathan Blutinger/Columbia Engineering.
A 3D printed chicken sample being cooked by a blue laser. Photo via Jonathan Blutinger/Columbia Engineering.

The Photoshop equivalent for food?

While both Lipson and Blutinger are optimistic about the possibilities of their laser-cooking technology, the hardware and software components used are fairly low-tech. The pair also note the absence of a sustainable ecosystem to support the technology, with the ability to scale up the process also giving them food for thought.

“What we still don’t have is what we call ‘Food CAD’, sort of the Photoshop of food,” said Lipson. “We need a high level software that enables people who are not programmers or software developers to design the foods they want. And then we need a place where people can share digital recipes, like we share music.”

Blutinger added: “Food is something that we all interact with and personalize on a daily basis – it seems only natural to infuse software into our cooking to make meal creation more customizable.”

Ultimately, the laser cooking technology could be integrated into commercial food 3D printers to provide in-situ cooking as meat structures are printed, and could even be integrated into more traditional kitchen appliances to provide tunable cooking and greater aesthetic customization on cooked food.

As outlined in the team’s study, future experiments could investigate the effects of heating on layer adhesion between successive cooked printed layers, multiwavelength cooking for both penetrative and surface heating, methods to reduce cross-contamination between cooked and raw printed layers, and the effect of food cooling rates. By exploring these things further, the researchers will be able to judge the technology’s commercialization potential.

While chicken was chosen for this particular study, the technology could also potentially be extended to other animal proteins or food groups. The team reasons that laser heating grain-based substrates, which more readily absorb water, should accelerate mixture loss and browning during cooking.

More information on the study can found in the paper titled: “Precision cooking for printed foods via multiwavelength lasers,” published in the Nature journal. The study is co-authored by J. Blutinger, A. Tsai, E. Storvick, G. Seymour, E. Liu, N. Samarelli, S. Karthik, Y. Meijers, and H. Lipson.

3D printed food is cooking

While the Columbia engineers’ study is novel in its approach to cooking with multiwavelength lasers, there are others in the food 3D printing space that are also experimenting with cooking methods.

Israeli food tech start-up SavorEat is one of them, with its Robot Chef food 3D printer deploying a combination of 3D printing technology and advanced cooking methods to produce plant-based alternatives to meat products. The printer simultaneously extrudes and cooks plant-based proteins to form alt-meat products, and is due to be piloted in select US universities from next year as it gears up for commercialization

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Featured image shows a 3D printed chicken sample being cooked by a blue laser. Photo via Jonathan Blutinger/Columbia Engineering.