It seems an age since we wrote about what the future of food may look like.
Many modern pieces of technology have drawn inspiration from Star Trek. Whether we think of mobile phones, tablet computers, translators and voice-base queries (hi Siri and Cortana), early versions of the technology can be found in Gene Roddenberry‘s imagination.
So, can scientists with a hint of Trekkie in them influence the way we feed ourselves?
The Food Replicator
On board the Enterprise are a number of voice-command activated food replicator terminals. By simply naming your desired meal it would materialise in just a few seconds – even tea, earl grey, hot –
So how could we possibly know how the food replicator worked? Look at the manual of course!
The food replicator works in a similar manner to the transporter save that it doesn’t start with a fully formed object to be encoded, transmitted, decoded and reformed at the desired location, nor is its fidelity as high as the transporter (the food replicator contains some single bit errors, of not much concern with food but a big problem in people). Instead, the food replicator contains a database of the molecular matrix of, reportedly, over 4,500 different types of food. When anyone on board the Enterprise orders a meal, the food replicator draws upon the database to obtain the required constituents parts of the meal and where each of those constituents parts must be placed in a three-dimensional map (called a quantum geometry transformation matrix).
But the parts aren’t like your usual ingredient list. Instead, the ship has a supply of organic particulate suspension made up of long-chain molecules (think of the atomic make up of lipids).
The molecules are dematerialised into energy (E=mc² you know) which travel to the required terminal and are then reformed down to the molecular level according the map of the meal ordered.
The ship’s supply of the suspension is restocked at Star Command but, given the length of time some of these journey’s must take, there must be a better, more ‘Star Trek’ way of keeping the crew fueled. According to the manual, osmotic and electrolytic fracturing of waste water (you know what that is) can lead to the reclamation and reuse of up to 82% of the food created. Given the dilemma of food security we face, this sounds like something we should researching.
So, are we any closer to a food replicator ourselves?
Real life food replicators
We’re not quite there yet, but not for lack of trying.
There are a few recently released appliances that are inspired, at least according to the journalists writing the stories, by the Star Trek food replicator.
The Genie is a relatively new machine that looks a bit like a coffee machine but is in fact a quick-fire baking machine that takes in a pod of dehydrated ingredients (according to the meal that you want to cook) and, at a touch of a button on your connected phone, will mix the ingredients and add the required liquids, cooking it at the same time and, soon enough, out comes a ready meal.
A different method of automating the creation of a meal is that of a 3D printer which exudes the constituent proteins etc in the required 3D matrix that, at the end, will resemble your order. NASA has previously funded a project that aimed to 3D print a pizza for space crew (the patent specifically talks about it being for a space crew, which is a bit cool).
What we like the most about these inventions are the people behind them. The creators of the 3D printer for space pizza envisage the use of proteins derived from more sustainable sources as algae, insects and grass, while the creators of the Genie foresee the matching of meals to your microbiome and are very sure that the future of food will contain the possibility of getting your meal in a pill.
So, although the media certainly likes to add ‘Star Trek’ to the title of any article featuring these new products, none of them use a quantum geometry transformation matrix to ‘print’ a three dimensional replication of a piece of fish made up of parts reclaimed from your bowel movement. But, that is not to say that the parts and knowledge required to make up such a replicator aren’t completely beyond us.
What may the future hold?
We can reclaim water from poop, we can use algae to produce a myriad of basic food components, we can can teleport quantum information and we may one day have the ability to easily store the amount of data needed to keep the instructions for the molecular-scale replication of food. Although the use of quantum transformation matrices to reconstruct food via teleported components may be a fair way from being realised given our current quantum teleportation abilities, it is foreseeable that farming practices may pivot in the future to the production of the basic proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and essential elements for later combination to form the ingredients of a meal.
There would certainly seem to be many environmental advantages to having algae, bacteria or yeast produce required ingredients, such as significant control over growing systems and conditions, reduced input energy for production and reduced environmental effects from land clearing, eutrophication of waterways from excess nutrient run off and reduced food miles.
Who knows, perhaps one day your visit to the farmers market will see you face-to-face with a microbiologist who has same enthusiasm for his or her wares as the local micro-brewer does today.
Live long and prosper!