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This MIT-Invented Pasta Packs Flat, Then Snaps Into Crazy Shapes

Just add water, and the pasta transforms. It’s like magic.

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group have managed to make pasta, the world’s greatest food, even better: by giving it shape-shifting properties.

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Lining Yao, the lead researcher, and former Media Lab grad student, and Wen Wang, a researcher at the Media Lab, created flat sheets made of gelatin and starch that transform into 3D shapes when they’re submerged in water. While the edible sheets can also fold into other structures, like that of a flower, the researchers pursued pasta, engineering sheets that can transform into shapes that resemble rotini and macaroni. When submerged in hot liquid, spaghetti can divide into smaller noodles and discs can wrap around pieces of caviar to create something like cannoli.

Why would you want to do this? Because such technology could be used to package pasta more efficiently. The researchers found that the volume of packaging for macaroni is 67% air. If pasta were packed flat and then erupted into shapes when you dumped it in a pot, you could save money.

It is also an unusually tangible application of a heady technology. Shapeshifting materials and 4D printing–which refers to manufacturing objects that autonomously change shape over time–are nothing new at MIT, but they mostly exist in the realm of research. Yao and Wang’s project makes a cerebral idea more accessible (and tastier).

Yao and Wang began to play with the properties of gelatin while doing research on bacteria that expands and contracts based on the amount of humidity in the air (they ended up applying the bacteria to clothing and shoes to make clothing with ventilation flaps that open when you sweat). That bacteria had been used for centuries to make a Japanese fermented soybean dish, so they were curious about what other edible materials they might engineer to transform when exposed to water.

Gelatin was the ideal material to play with because it naturally expands in water, and they found that by creating two different layers with different densities, the gelatin would curl when it hit the water. They then engineered pasta shapes by 3D printing edible cellulose on top of the gelatin. Because cellulose doesn’t absorb much water, it acted as a barrier, enabling the designers to control how the gelatin would curl.

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Helix noodle with Point Judith squid, confit egg yolk, and white hoisin, by Matthew Delisle. [Photo: Michael Indresano Photography]
Aside from packaging, the shape-shifting pasta could be used in fine cuisine. The MIT researchers partnered with Matthew Delisle, the executive chef at the Massachusetts bed and breakfast The Windsor House Inn’s restaurant who’s considered one of New England’s best chefs, to see what he could do with their creation. Delisle cooked up some phytoplankton pasta salad with heirloom tomatoes and wild sorrel and helix noodle with Point Judith squid, confit egg yolk, and white hoisin. Besides just sounding delicious, the plated dishes look like they’d be at home in a high-end restaurant.

More and more designers are experimenting with food, though perhaps less ambitiously than MIT’s shape-shifting pasta. For Salone 2017, one designer created entirely new kinds of sausages out of insects. Others are looking to use art to help people rethink how they eat. A so-called “eating designer” created gross sculptures that go on your plate and make it seem like you’re eating more than you are.

While this shape-shifting pasta likely has a long way to go before it reaches your local grocery store given the rigor of FDA testing, it certainly brings a lot of possibilities–and a bit more surprise–to the table.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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