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Mighty Morphing ‘Flat-Pack’ Pasta Changes Shape in Boiling Water

The new noodle could save packaging materials by eliminating airspace inside food cartons

Researchers created a new pasta shaping technique that allowed this noodle to transform from a straight to curlicue after seven minutes in boiling water. (Morphing Matter Lab. Carnegie Mellon University)
smithsonianmag.com

This week a team of scientists debuted a new type of pasta that comes out of the box looking flat and straight, but emerges from a seven-minute stint in boiling water transformed into curling 3-D shapes, reports Marion Renault for the New York Times. One of the shapes starts out looking like spaghetti or fettuccine and then transforms during cooking into a long spiral something like a stretched-out fusilli that allows sauce to cling to it, the researchers report in the journal Science Advances.

Researchers say their pasta shapes could allow for more efficient packaging that uses less material by allowing the uncooked noodles to lay flat with little airspace between them. This efficiency could even lower the carbon footprint of your pasta night by allowing the food to be transported more efficiently to stores. The team estimates their flat-pack shapes could reduce packaging requirements for the popular food by 59 to 86 percent, reports Isaac Schultz for Gizmodo.

The space savings could lend itself to astronaut food or even food deliveries to disaster areas, according to the Times. Wen Wang, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, says in a statement that the technique they developed may even have applications in soft robotics or biomedical devices that need to change shape.

"We were inspired by flat-packed furniture and how it saved space, made storage easier and reduced the carbon footprint associated with transportation," says Lining Yao, a mechanical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author of the study, in the statement. "We decided to look at how the morphing matter technology we were developing in the lab could create flat-packed pastas that offered similar sustainability outcomes."

Per the Times, pasta shapes are typically made by folding the dough or by extruding it through a metal die. According to the paper, the new shaping process doesn’t rely on any fancy ingredients in the uncooked pasta to work, just standard semolina flour and water.

Researchers say their pasta’s neat trick is accomplished with the help of tons of tiny grooves in each piece of dry pasta, which are less than 0.04 inches wide. Because they increase the surface area of some parts of the pasta, those areas absorb water faster and swell up, contorting the noodle as they do so, reports Donna Lu for New Scientist.

“The groove pattern in terms of the depth, the height, and then the spacing are all very important,” Wen Wang, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, tells New Scientist. “By utilizing this we could bend the pasta into the shape we would like.”

Study co-author Lining Yao, director of the Morphing Matter Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, tells Gizmodo the team only needed two different groove patterns to achieve almost any shapes: parallel grooves to create uniform curves and fanned-out radial grooves to create conical sections. In combination, Yao says these groove patterns can create cylinders, boxes and many other potential shapes.

However, those that prefer their pasta cooked beyond al dente may be out of luck. The researchers say pasta shaped using their technique holds its intended posture best when not cooked for longer than seven minutes. “In other words, the pasta can never not be al dente,” Jennifer Lewis, an engineer at Harvard University who was not involved in the study, tells the Times. “So, this is great as long as you like al dente pasta. I personally am a fan.”

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