Call it the Ikea of Italian cuisine.
Where the trendy mid-century coffee table or cube shelf for records from an Ikea flatpack is a rite of passage for many 20-somethings, material scientists have unveiled a way to do the same thing for pasta — making your favorite Italian dish suddenly easier to transport and unexpectedly making it environmentally friendly in the process.
It’s something that Carnegie Mellon University’s Morphing Matter Lab director Lining Yao says even apply to shapes like macaroni.
“Based on our geometrical calculation, flatly pack macaroni pasta could save more than 60% of the packaging space,” Yao tells Inverse. “Because more than half of the food packaging space, in this case, is used to pack air.”
In a new study, Yao and her team demonstrate how to construct flat-packed pasta that can twist and contort into a myriad of pasta shapes — from spirals to cones — in just a matter of seconds. The secret sauce? Just a few strategically imprinted grooves on the pasta itself.
More than just a Spy Kids or Star Trek-esque way to transform our favorite foods, Yao says it’s also a way to streamline the manufacturing process and reduce a different kind of food waste: wasted space.
The research, accompanied by a delightful video and images of flat pasta’s springing to attention, was published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
What’s new — This is not the first time this team of researchers has attempted to design a more streamlined and flatter pasta. But they write in the new study that their previous approach had fallen short on demonstrating exactly how to reliably recreate a morphing pasta noodle. In this newest rendition, they were looking to set this record straight.
“Surface grooves [were] introduced [in our previous work] for morphing flour-based food, since this works with a single material and simple manufacturing method,” write the authors. “However, the previous study did not explain the underlining morphing mechanism and relied heavily on experimental trial and error for the morphing design.”
In other words, while the team determined in their previous study that stamping grooves on flat pasta could coax it into taking on 3D shape in the water, they didn’t yet know exactly why this was happening — at least in terms of a master equation to describe the action.
Using a mix of physical experiments (on both hydrogel “pasta” and the real deal) and simulations, the team was now able to reliably recreate this morphology to develop and predict the formation of different pasta shapes.
Why does it matter — If we already have flat pasta shapes like lasagna or fettucini, what’s the benefit of developing new, flat-packed pasta’s too? According to the researchers, this method could allow consumers to continue consuming their favorite 3D shapes (from twisted to fusilli to perhaps even novel shapes like cascatelli) all while putting a dent into the amount of plastic used to ship this pasta around the world.
According to the EPA, food packaging waste is a major contributor to landfills in the U.S., and with their new packaging method — which allows for closely stacked pasta — the researchers estimate that the amount of packaging needed could be reduced by 60 percent. A lot of this space is saved by eliminating excess air and gaps that twists and shells can create when funneled into a box. These shapes are fun to eat, but as they’re packaged now they do come at an environmental cost.
What they did — To get a better understanding of how different grove patterns impacted the final shape of a hydrogel or flour-based pasta noodle, the team simulated different shapes such as helixes, saddles, twists, and even boxes.
After demonstrating via a computer simulation that distinct groove patterns (such as those that were diagonal or more spaced-out) could create distinct pasta shapes, the team put their idea to the real test: a pot of boiling water.
Both real and artificial pasta behaved as the team would expect based on their simulations and they note that the flour-based pasta reached its final shape within 7-12 minutes of being in the water — the perfect amount of time for an al dente noodle.
The team also report that the shape of the flour-based pasta’s final 3D shape becomes irreversible after cooking (unlike its artificial counterpart), a trait that is probably preferred by consumers looking for the signature bite and chew of a twisty pasta.
What’s next — The authors write that future research remains to be done to design more complicated 3D shapes for this pasta and tell Inverse that these methods may also be applied to other food as well.
“We have only quantitatively tested pasta so far,” says Yao. “However, in principle, we anticipate this can be adapted to a variety of food that can swell in water, including food gels — like gelatin dessert, or Japanese wagashi — and other flour-based noodles.”
As for herself, Yao says she’s excited to see how this technique will push the boundaries of pasta making.
“We can also make creative shapes, as a thin line turns into a heart, or a disk turns into a rose flower,” says Yao. “These will be interesting for festivals or celebrations like birthdays.”
Abstract: Morphing structures are often engineered with stresses introduced into a flat sheet by leveraging structural anisotropy or compositional heterogeneity. Here, we identify a simple and universal diffusion-based mechanism to enable a transient morphing effect in structures with parametric surface grooves, which can be realized with a single material and fabricated using low-cost manufacturing methods (e.g., stamping, molding, and casting). We demonstrate from quantitative experiments and multiphysics simulations that parametric surface grooving can induce temporary asynchronous swelling or deswelling and can transform flat objects into designed, three-dimensional shapes. By tuning the grooving pattern, we can achieve both zero (e.g., helices) and nonzero (e.g., saddles) Gaussian curvature geometries. This mechanism allows us to demonstrate approaches that could improve the efficiency of certain food manufacturing processes and facilitate the sustainable packaging of food, for instance, by creating morphing pasta that can be flat-packed to reduce the air space in the packaging.