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Flat-Packed Pasta – A More Sustainable Way To Enjoy Your Penne?

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Flat-Packed Pasta – A More Sustainable Way To Enjoy Your Penne?

Transient and reversible bi-directional morphing of a rose flower. Credit: Morphing Matter Lab. Carnegie Mellon University.
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There are over 350 types of pasta that have been created all over the world to suit different traditions and cooking needs. Specific shapes hold certain sauces better than others; if you are craving a hearty meat-stuffed pasta dish, for example, using strands of spaghetti might prove a little challenging – enter the tortellini.

Having the option to cook with and eat so many different types of pasta may be tantalizing for our tastebuds, but packaging and transporting it can be likened to a game of edible Tetris. Whether it is tubed, spiralled, twisted or waved, many types of pasta require large boxes to transport them safely across the world without causing damage to the product. Ultimately, the plastic material used in such packaging often finds its way to landfills.

In a new study published in Science Advances, researchers from the Morphing Matter Lab at Carnegie Mellon University propose a more sustainable approach: flat-packed pasta that morphs into the shape of "traditional pasta" when it is cooked. Inspired by flat-packed furniture, the scientists hypothesize that this approach could offer a space-saving solution for transporting pasta, which might reduce the carbon footprint of the process.

The work builds on many years of research by Professor Lining Yao, the director of the lab, and was conducted in collaboration with researchers from CMU, Syracuse University and Zhejiang University.


Flatpack morphing pasta for sustainable food packaging. Credit: Morphing Matter Lab. Carnegie Mellon University.

Getting groovy with pasta design


To create the morphed pasta, the team introduce surface grooves into the flat pasta dough, which is made from semolina flour and water, that tune the differential swelling rate of the pasta as it cooks. "This causes the morphing. If you design the groove patterns in different ways, you can program the shape that the pasta will morph into," says Yao. The grooves can be created through low-cost manufacturing methods, such as casting, laser etching and stamping.

Initially, the team explored the mechanism by conducting simulations before advancing to edible pasta models. In both materials, they found that morphing could be predicted accurately.

Perhaps most importantly, the morphing of the pasta does not lead to a compromised taste, according to Ye Tao, former postdoctoral researcher at the Morphing Matter Lab. She decided to pack-up some of the pasta as fuel for a hiking trip, where she cooked it on a portable camp stove. "The morphed pasta mimicked the mouthfeel, taste and appearance of traditional pasta," she describes in a press release.

Long-distance transportation to… space?


A packet of dried pasta is relatively affordable and is often a staple ingredient in many low-cost recipes. How might the price of morphed pasta compare? Yao says that the team have not conducted any realistic estimations yet, but the raw materials and the process required to knead and sheet morphed pasta dough are the same. "The changes in a mass production line may include the introduction of a stamping process. Our intuition is that this is relatively trivial, but we need more input from industrial experts," she comments.

The method could also be applied to other flour-based foods, such as Japanese ramen or Asian noodles. "Food gels like gello, or Japanese wagashi, could work too," says Yao.

Flatpack morphing pasta for sustainable food packaging. Credit: Morphing Matter Lab. Carnegie Mellon University.

Yao notes that more experimental characterization and modeling are required to improve the accuracy and understanding of the morphing mechanism, and to fully explore shape spaces that are challenging to create, for example, dome shaped pasta.

The next step for the researchers is to adapt the morphing mechanism and design principles. They hope to develop AI-enabled design tools for chefs and home cooks so that, for any desired 3D shape, the 2D groove pattern could be generated automatically. The scientists are even considering how the method could be applied for transportation beyond Earth: "We want to explore the application contexts of flatpack food for situations where packaging space is really precious, such as Mars travel," Yao concludes.

Lining Yao was speaking with Molly Campbell, Science Writer for Technology Networks.

Reference: Tao Ye, Lee YC, Liu H et al. Morphing pasta and beyond. Sci. Adv. 2021;7(19);eabf4098 doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abf4098.  

Meet The Author
Molly Campbell
Molly Campbell
Science Writer
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