Meals on Mars to be made from plastic waste, says NASA-affiliated 3D food tech expert

At CES 2023, IE discovered a cutting-edge bioreactor for the future of in-space dining.
Sade Agard
Mars colonization concept
Mars colonization concept

dottedhippo/iStock 

The days of tang and freeze-dried ice cream are far gone in the world of space technology. To find ways to grow food in space, organizations, including NASA, JAXA, and the European Space Agency, are collaborating with the food business.

Interesting Engineering (IE) learned from a panel of experts at the Consumer's Electronic Show (CES) 2023 (Jan .05) the kind of solutions being developed to provide humans food during extended space flight- and eventually, habitation. One particular solution that stood out, turns plastic into consumable food. Yup, you read that right.

'Steak out of plastic' and more

Meals on Mars to be made from plastic waste, says NASA-affiliated 3D food tech expert
The 'container' bioreactor for 3D-printed meals

Beehex is developing deep-space food solutions using various 3D-printed food technologies. Founded by NASA-affiliated entrepreneur and engineer Anja Contractor, the idea stemmed from giving astronauts exact, individualized, 3D-printed meals in microgravity. Here, crew time is restricted, and cooking is not an option.

"What you see over here is a shipping container...we have completely changed that," Contractor said. "On one side, plastic waste is collected, which will be shredded. It will eventually move into the bioreactor, which contains very specific engineered bacteria."

IE learned that the engineered bacteria eat the plastic and convert it into biomass. This biomass can then be used to produce a variety of textures and shapes.

"So if you want to create steak out of plastic, the entire mechanism on one side of this container will be able to produce steak out of plastic- or chicken breasts," he explained.

Tackling food insecurity on Earth

As you can imagine, printing 3D meals could help tackle food issues right here on Earth.

Contractor revealed that the project is funded by The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)- one of the biggest government-backed forces behind innovation in the US.

"The idea is to first put this type of container at food disaster relief operations such as those related to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), or locations where there are refugee camps.," he said.

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"Especially for the U.S. Army or Marine Corps, that is what we are targeting, for it's the most tangible plan," he added. Contractor stated that the market is marked as roughly in the range of 500 million to one billion dollars.

"You can sell these machines to FEMA, and various governments across the world, including organizations like the United Nations. So that is the first step," he highlighted.

Later, subcomponents of the machine will be made to fit into a spaceship and low Earth orbit (LEO) space stations such as the International Space Station (ISS) and Orbital Reef.

"The payload needs to be very lightweight. We anticipate that this project will kick off probably somewhere around 2026 to 2027. And the first application will be Moon-based," Contractor revealed.