This pasta might sound boring but wait until you cook it

This flat strip of pasta, similar in shape to a fettuccine, will twist into a helix when soaked in hot water. / Carnegie Mellon University Morphing Matter Lab

This flat strip of pasta, similar in shape to a fettuccine, will twist into a helix when soaked in hot water. / Carnegie Mellon University Morphing Matter Lab

Pasta holds a special place in many hearts and kitchen cabinets. But a lot of space can be saved because air takes up a lot of space in our favorite forms.

Consider the hollow tubes of penne, the wide curls of fusilli and the tousled edges of the campanelle. They offer a wonderful world of culinary possibilities and sauce pairings, but require a large amount of packaging destined, in part, for landfills and incinerators.

Today, a team of 17 multidisciplinary scientists from three universities in the United States and China broke the mold of pasta shapes by making noodles that go flat to full when tossed into boiling water. Their new designs reduce the size of pasta packaging and reduce plastic waste.

In a laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), researchers developed this metamorphosed dough by imprinting tiny grooves on the surface of the rolled dough – a standard mixture of semolina flour and water. The sites of the narrow depressions expanded less than the smooth portions during baking, causing the dough to swell asymmetrically and to transform into three-dimensional structures.

The final shapes did not appear at random in 3D life. They depended on how and where the bumps were placed on the raw dough, as well as their size, the gap between them, and the thickness of the base. By carefully controlling these parameters, the researchers were able to persuade the seemingly simple leaves and bands to twist into spirals, tubes, waves, and stool in the pot.

When you unwrap these pasta sheets, they are flat. But a few minutes on the stove and they will turn into 3D structures. / Carnegie Mellon University Morphing Matter Lab

When you unwrap these pasta sheets, they are flat. But a few minutes on the stove and they will turn into 3D structures. / Carnegie Mellon University Morphing Matter Lab

Scientists have lifted the lid on the drawings in an article published in Scientific progress last week, and lead author Tao Ye says that research on transformable pasta has been simmering for a few years now.

From guesswork to design guidelines

A food project done in 2017 by Tao’s co-authors, who were at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the time, laid the foundation for his work. The “Transformative appetite“used gelatin and cellulose in two-dimensional edible films that twisted and coiled into 3D configurations on contact with water due to the materials’ different response to hydration.

“I was shocked,” Tao, a former visiting postdoctoral fellow at CMU and currently an associate professor at Zhejiang University City College, told CGTN.

At CMU, she channeled her curiosity to harness the transformational potential of dough into a new coded project “Morphlour, “a suitcase of morphing and flour.

In 2019, she and her colleagues proved that a piece of dough that starts out flat can end up coiling into spirals or closing in on itself when strategically embossed with tiny grooves at different angles. They whipped up tacos that wrap around in the oven and fettuccine strips that curl into a heart shape when boiled. But there was one problem: the team couldn’t explain the work behind the behavior of the dough.

“Morphlour is more akin to design-oriented research. We have established the objective of achieving the deformation of the dough [but] we constantly [relied on] trial and error to find workable methods “for designing morphing,” Tao explained.

A composite image shows the different stages of preparing the pasta dough and impresses with tiny grooves on its surface. / Carnegie Mellon University Morphing Matter Lab

A composite image shows the different stages of preparing the pasta dough and impresses with tiny grooves on its surface. / Carnegie Mellon University Morphing Matter Lab

In the just published article, the group worked to clarify the underlying morphing mechanism and develop design guidelines that took their research from experimental to theoretical.

Computer simulations developed by Teng Zhang, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Syracuse University, predicted what different pasta designs would look like based on the geometric characteristics of the grooves.

For example, parallel patterns caused the flat pasta to twist into a helix. The radial patterns gave rise to a cone when pressed onto one side of the uncooked dough and a ring shape when stamped on both sides.

“We have provided guidelines for the manufacture of propellers, cones and [other] complex shapes through a combination of these. This streamlines the design principle for non-designers, such as engineers, ”Teng, also a co-author of the study, told CGTN.

“In Morphlour’s previous work, the design was pretty much based on the intuition and experience of the designer,” he explained.

The researchers used computer simulations and cooking tests to experiment with different pasta models and their morphing behavior during cooking. / Carnegie Mellon University Morphing Matter Lab

The researchers used computer simulations and cooking tests to experiment with different pasta models and their morphing behavior during cooking. / Carnegie Mellon University Morphing Matter Lab

And while the researchers spotted some familiar pasta shapes at the end of their kitchen testing, there’s still a long way to go before they can turn the unpretentious strips into any pasta variety already on the market or grapple with it. success with complex shapes. As they explained, some models are harder to reach from a flat state due to their curvature and the pasta swelling index (how many noodles can swell in water).

Pasta on mission

There is more to programmable pasta than the incredible feat of engineering at play, with researchers touting their potential virtues.

The world just can’t seem to get enough of this staple of Italian cuisine. Even before pantries overflowed with spaghetti, macaroni and rigatoni last year in our collective quest for long-lasting comfort foods amid the coronavirus pandemic, factories were producing record amounts of pasta.

In 2019, global production reached nearly 16 million tonnes, more than double the production 20 years earlier, according to the Rome-based nonprofit. International Pasta Organization. That’s a lot of pasta but also plastic for the bags, as the commercial type is usually mechanically formed into its expected 3D shape on the production line.

Plastic is the most common type of packaging for pasta. / CFP

Plastic is the most common type of packaging for pasta. / CFP

In the midst of a race for sustainability in recent years, pasta makers and grocery stores have come up with a range of eco-friendly ideas for their products. In 2016, UK supermarket chain Waitrose introduced 15% discarded peas and pulses packaging during the production of its gluten-free fusilli. In 2020, Barilla, the world’s largest pasta company, announced it was ending the plastic window on the front of its boxes and switching to 100% recyclable boxes made from materials made from of paper. And last month, British grocer Aldi said it was removing all packaging, selling pasta in bulk from vending machines in a trial.

Tao and his colleagues chose to go out of the box (pasta), focusing on the content rather than the container.

“People make and eat food every day, mostly by following the menu. But few believe that food can be designed, ”she said.

Convertible carbohydrate concoctions occupied between 59% and 86% less volume in their flat form compared to their cooked form. Reducing the packaging space reduces packaging material and therefore waste. It also makes storage and shipping more efficient and potentially less expensive.

The team also estimated that minimalist pasta might have a smaller carbon footprint, as it takes seven to 12 minutes on the stovetop until al dente – slightly faster than most regular shapes. .

Flat-packed pasta could also be useful in situations limited by spatial constraints, such as disaster areas or space travel.

Volumetric calculations from Morphlour Research 2019 comparing flat shapes and transformed shapes in four designs. Depending on the 3D structure, 41-76% of the packaging space can be saved. / Carnegie Mellon University Morphing Matter Lab

Volumetric calculations from Morphlour Research 2019 comparing flat shapes and transformed shapes in four designs. Depending on the 3D structure, 41-76% of the packaging space can be saved. / Carnegie Mellon University Morphing Matter Lab

The taste tests have garnered positive reviews, the researchers say. Tao tried the flat-packed pasta outdoors on a hike and found “no difference” in the mouth feel from what she was used to. But the rest of us may have to wait a little longer to taste.

Scaling and consumer testing are crucial in getting morphing pastes to market, said Wen Wang, former CMU Morphing Matter Lab affiliate researcher and co-author of the article.

“It is difficult to predict an exact time, but it could take six months to two years if the resources are available,” she said.

When that day comes, it will be a new dawn of “pastabilities”.


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