In our efforts to rein in our overwhelming burden upon Earth's living biosphere, every little thing adds up. Even the shape of pasta (of all things!) can make a difference in our consumption of resources.
Which is why scientists have now created flat-packed pasta that's more efficient to package and transport, but can then unfurl into shape once it's in the pot.
Food packaging is a huge contributor to landfills. In the US for instance, food packaging along with food waste makes up almost half of all solid consumer waste. But scientists estimate that flat-packed noodles could reduce pasta packaging by up to 60 percent, by eliminating all the air space included in different shaped pastas, like tubes of penne and spirals of fusilli, when packed.
Inspired by space and resource-saving flat-packed furniture, digital fabrication researcher Ye Tao from Zhejiang University and colleagues created noodles that can change shape.
Building on past experiments, where grooves stamped into flat pasta caused the noodles to spontaneously morph into 3D-shapes when submerged in water, the researchers used computer and physical tests to work out how to control these unnerving transformations.
"The groove side expands less than the smooth side, leading the pasta to morph into shape," explained Syracuse University biomechanical engineer Teng Zhang.
And the morphing pasta puts on quite a show - twisting and writhing along strategically placed grooves like an unfurling flower or wiggling worm, as it swells with water.
"The morphed pasta mimicked the mouthfeel, taste and appearance of traditional pasta," said Tao after testing it during a hiking trip.
Flat pasta may also cook faster than pre-shaped pasta, potentially reducing its cooking emissions too. The researchers found their pasta completes its transformation in around seven to 12 minutes of cooking - the same time required to become ready for us to devour.
"In principle, we anticipate this can be adapted to a variety of food that can swell in water, including food gels - like gelatin dessert, or Japanese wagashi - and other flour-based noodles," mechanical engineer Lining Yao from Carnegie Mellon University told Sarah Wells at Inverse.
She's excited at the possibility of making even more creative shapes, like decorative flower shapes for a celebration.
"It empowers people to rethink how food could be cooked and consumed while saving resources for packing and shipping," Yao said. "This pasta could be rapidly deployed to disaster sites and even valuable for space travel. If we're talking about a multiyear mission to Mars, space aboard the shuttle will be at a premium."
These origami-like techniques could also be applied to other useful materials such as 3D printed hydrogels that have a huge potential in medicine - from drug delivery to diagnostic biosensors - as well as in robotics.
If enough of us focus on creating more eco friendly initiatives such as this, along with broader systemic changes, perhaps we can also transform the shape of our impact on Earth.
This research was published in Science Advances.