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Choc printer

UK scientists develop 3D chocolate-printing technology

Scientists at the University of Exeter have developed three-dimensional printer that can build products from chocolate – and it has great commercial potential. Although still a prototype, several retailers have already expressed interest in taking on the device.

3D printing is a technology where a three-dimensional object is created by building up successive layers of material. The technology is already used in industry to produce plastic and metal products.

Lead scientist Dr Liang Hao says chocolate printing, just like any other 3D printing technique, starts with a flat cross-section image – similar to that produced by ordinary printers turning out images.

“Then you do a 3D shape – layer by layer, printing chocolate instead of ink, like if you were layering 2D paper to form a 3D shape,” he said. Once a layer is completed, it solidifies, and the machine moves on to the next layer.

The research has presented many challenges. Chocolate is not an easy material to work with because it requires accurate heating and cooling cycles. These variables then have to be integrated with the correct flow rates for the 3D printing process. Researchers overcame these difficulties with the development of new temperature and heating-control systems.

There have been other attempts to develop so-called “food printers” – in 2010, researchers from Cornell University in the US used liquefied foods as inks in a specially designed machine.

Once the prototype becomes a finished product, it may find a role in the restaurant and food preparation industry. And accourding to BBC News, some companies are already expressing interest.

“Obviously, it’s chocolate, so it is hugely appealing,” said Joanna Grant from UK online gift retailer findmeagift.co.uk.

But what is even more appealing, she added, is that customers will be able to design any object on a computer before hitting the print button. “We could do things like 3D faces, for instance – the possibilities are enormous on a commercial aspect.”

Besides producing 3D chocolate, Dr Hao’s team wants to go a step further – and take their printer into cyberspace.

He said the next step would be creating a chocolate-oriented website. “Now we have an opportunity to combine chocolate with digital technology, including the design, digital manufacturing and social networking.

“Chocolate has a lot of social purpose, so our intention is to develop a community and share the designs, ideas and experience about it.”

Source: BBC News; www.theengineer.co.uk

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