DARPA invites project proposals for new edible 3D printed food products

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has issued a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) opportunity inviting proposals for a new edible 3D printing material.

Dubbed the Innovative Nutritional Formulations SBIR Program, the concept call aims to attract clever ideas for turning biomass (created through DARPA’s ReSource program) into safe and edible food products. The Agency has stated that the cellular biomass formulations must be compatible with at least one type of 3D printing technology, and can be in the form of a liquid, solid, powder, paste, or ink.

Ultimately, the edible materials are designed to be used on the front lines and other disaster zones where traditional food may not be easily accessible to soldiers and civilians.

DARPA's HQ in Ballston. Photo via DARPA.
DARPA’s HQ in Ballston. Photo via DARPA.

The need for 3D printed food

It’s no secret that the US defense forces are required to withstand all manner of harsh conditions, including extreme weather and surprise attacks by opposing forces. As such, it’s not uncommon for supply lines to be taken down out in the field, leaving soldiers to live off rations until logistics can be secured once again.

DARPA’s ReSource program aims to combat this somewhat, as it’s focused on developing durable systems that can produce a variety of on-demand products using local materials and waste. These products range from water and basic foods to more functional materials like lubricants and adhesives – all in a bid to support remote units and humanitarian relief initiatives.

The biomass created from the ReSource program will be the backbone of the new Innovative Nutritional Formulations program, announced just last week. By converting (otherwise) useless biomass into palatable rations without the need for an entire factory, DARPA can help de-risk vulnerable supply lines while providing a secondary food supply for submarines, warships, and other expeditionary units.

A U.S. Army Humvee. Photo via U.S. Army.
Armed forces out on the front lines are at risk of supply line disruptions, which is where having a supplementary food source can come in handy. Photo via U.S. Army.

Safe, tasty, nutritional, and resilient

DARPA’s two-year Innovative Nutritional Formulations program will feature a number of readiness tests to assess all of the biomass-based 3D printing formulations before a winner is chosen. The printed food will, of course, be evaluated for its safety and taste, although these will be done via chemical analysis methods rather than an actual taste test.

The edible materials must also meet all of the nutritional requirements of the armed forces and be storable long-term in a range of environmental conditions. After all, the food may be stored in controlled humidities and temperatures, but it may also be used as a last resort in a remote arid location with extreme heat.

Project proposers may develop the cellular biomass into virtually any form they see fit, including liquids and powders. However, they’ll be required to consider whether or not the formulations will be compatible with the armed forces’ logistical capabilities – for example, any sterilization or pasteurization requirements.

Over the course of the two years, DARPA will gradually increase the difficulty of the readiness tests. The Agency has said that the program will conclude with a final trial focusing on the “production of customized provisions from cellular biomass using performer-defined specifications while mimicking a remote, austere environment”. Proposals for the Innovative Nutritional Formulations SBIR Program are due by February 3, 2022.

In a similar initiative announced earlier this year, DARPA awarded GE Research, the R&D wing of American conglomerate GE, $14.3 million to transform the transport of potable water to troops in the field through a 3D printed device that literally produces it out of thin air. The device, which could produce enough daily water for 150 troops, will be developed alongside the University of California at Berkeley, University of Chicago, and University of South Alabama.

With similar goals in mind, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) also recently awarded binder jet 3D printer OEM ExOne a $1.6M contract to develop a portable 3D printing factory for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Currently under development, the ‘rugged 3D printing pod’ will be housed in a standard 40-foot shipping container.

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Featured image shows DARPA’s HQ in Ballston. Photo via DARPA.