This Flat Pasta Morphs into Surprising Shapes As it Cooks

Physics

 By: Hannah Pell

Think of your favorite pasta dish. The classic spaghetti with marinara, layered lasagna, pasta salad, macaroni & cheese — there are plenty to choose from, you might just have to use your noodle. Now, think of what you like most about it. Is it the texture? The flavor? Or are you mostly just happy to treat yourself to a plate of carbs? (Confession, that one’s me).

Pasta is a wonderful culinary staple not only for its diverse uses but its variety of shapes, too. But textured pastas, such as rigatoni or farfalle, are fragile and can easily break apart during packaging and transit. Additionally, there’s extra, unused space in the boxes, which adds up to a lot more waste.

Orzo, this used to be the case. Scientists may have recently found a solution for our pasta-packaging troubles (though not the incomparable yet potentially problematic joy of carbs). In a new paper published in the open-access journal Science Advances, researchers from the Morphing Matter Lab at Carnegie Mellon University have engineered a pasta that, when boiled in water, can expand and morph into various surprising shapes, including a rose!

How does it work? The authors undertook theoretical simulations to predict how structures with “zero Gaussian curvatures” (aka flat) would behave when swelling, modeling conditions that resemble cooking pasta in boiling water. Based on their results, they etched divots into pasta made of semolina flour and water, controlling the angle, width, depth, and spacing of the grooves that bloomed into various shapes when boiled, since thinner regions of the pasta take less time to cook than thicker sections. What resulted is some pretty stunning — and delicious — science.

Image Credit: Tao, et al. “Morphing pasta and beyond.” Science Advances (2021).
Important applications of this engineered pasta are potential improvements to food manufacturing processes through reduced package waste and increased sustainability. In fact, as a field test, lead author Ye Tao packed samples of the morphing pasta on a camping trip, and demonstrated that it took up significantly less space, didn’t break, and was easily prepared with a small, portable camp stove. This morphing technique can also be realized using low-cost manufacturing processes, including stamping, molding, and casting.

Additionally, this research could extend beyond pasta to strategically shape flat silicon sheets. “This could potentially be used in soft robotics and biomedical devices,” co-author Wen Weng told Physics World.

What we do know for sure, however, is that when scientists are in the kitchen, the pasta-bilities are endless.

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