Back in 2005, Homaro Cantu, chef at the now-shuttered Chicago restaurant Moto, printed an image of a hamburger on edible paper. It wasn't 3D, but it was first step in fusing tech and food. In 2011, researchers at the University of Exeter made headlines with a 3D printer that created designs in chocolate, and MIT research associate David Carr followed up with a machine that printed out people's faces in the same medium. In 2014, Barcelona-based startup Natural Machines launched Foodini, a 3D printer working that uses prepared capsules of food to print dishes such as ravioli at the press of a button. Then, at this year's CES, XYZprinting printed pizza. Is the future of food already here?
The Catalan government believes the region's food sector is a prime candidate for boosting the the area's economy, putting it front and centre in an initiative designed to promote the growth of Catalan industry.
The foundations for the project have already been laid: according to the British magazine Restaurant, the world's best restauratnt, el Celler de Can Roca, is located in the Catalan city of Girona. And Ferran Adrià, the superstar Catalan chef, is taking gastronomy to new levels of scientific creativity through elBulliFoundation and the Bullipedia, an encyclopedia aimed at changing the way cooks work. In addition, Catalonia will be the European region of gastronomy for 2016.
It was against this background that the the University of Barcelona (UB), the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) and the Fundació CIM, an organization which promotes research into and use of new digital manufacturing technologies, opened the new Laboratory for Technological Demonstrations and Culinary Research last month.
The facility is located in the Torribera campus of the University of Barcelona, around 10km from the city and set in an enviably green environment. To get there, you have to climb a series of stairs. Mens sana in corpore sano.
The laboratory has a multidisciplinary team led by Pere Castells, a chemist and authority on science and cooking. As well as working on projects related to 3D printing, the team also those experiments with the use Big Data in the kitchen - for example, with food pairing theory, based on the principle that foods go well with one another when they share key flavor components.
"Until recently, the industry has only been concerned with the shelf life and safety of products," Castells told ZDNet. "3D printing offers new opportunities for personalized cuisine, a concept that will revitalize both the food industry and the restaurant business," he added.
All these changes are gently simmering away, like good dishes. "In field of gastronomy, the possibilities of 3D printing are not yet apparent," Castells said.
"Printing flat designs can be done, but 3D is something else," said Castells as he demonstrated how layers of chocolate are used to build up three-dimensional structures, laid down one after the other by machines donated by the Fundació CIM and other haute cuisine equipment given by businesses.
The foundation, attached to Polytechnic University of Catalonia and working on an open hardware basis, has been selling 3D printers since 1998, according to Felip Fonollosa, its director general.
It has recently incorporated a paste extruder system into its printers, using it to control the amount of material deposited by each layer through the pressure exerted by the piston of a syringe.
The new tool can use a variety of materials to create different designs, making it useful for creative cuisine. In fact, Carme Ruscalleda, the Catalan chef behind the three Michelin starred restaurant Sant Pau, used it to make an edible model of one of the stained-glass windows of Santa Maria del Mar, a gothic church in Barcelona.
"It was quite easy because the structure was flat," says Castells. "Right now, the greatest challenge with 3D food printing is to create volume, and that's the next step for our laboratory." To achieve this goal, Castells is planning to study the problems associated with giving food volume - that is, a more 3D shape rather than a flat design - and also some experts in temperature control, which he believes is a key factor in making food printing a success.
"Chocolate is a difficult product to work with, because it has to enter the syringe in liquid form and then solidify to form layers and create a structure," he said.
Fundació CIM's Fonollosa echoed his words. "Our flagship product, the BCN3D Sigma, works very well with plastic," but "chocolate is a difficult one as it has to keep a certain temperature".
However, for now, "the market is still immature" and has room to grow, said Fonollosa. "We have to establish a culture of food machine usage. Cooks are keen to do demonstrations and shows but don't want to buy the machines yet."
As for Castells, he is convinced that benefits will come from cartridges or capsules of food - like those used in coffee machines today.
He has some time ahead to work on it: the agreement signed by the two Catalan universities is for an initial three-year period, with room to be extended.
It's also part of a larger project to create the Center for Gastronomic Studies and Research of Catalonia, an initiative by the University of Barcelona, the Alicia Foundation - a center devoted to technological innovation in food and promoting healthy eating, and the Institute for Research and Technology, a Catalonian government organisation which promotes research and technological development in the area of agri-food.