Digitally Engineered Shapeshifting Pasta is Here to Reduce Packaging Waste

And you thought you'd never use math in real life

MIT's shapeshifting pasta.
MIT's shapeshifting pasta.Michael Indresano Photography

Have you ever opened a bag of chips or box of pasta and wondered why it was half air? Part of the answer: inefficient packaging, the result of foods settling during transport to your grocery store. Which is why researchers at MIT have devised a way to reduce the amount of wasted space when packaging pasta by using flat, digitally-designed noodles that expand into three dimensions when cooked in water.

"We did some simple calculations, such as for macaroni pasta, and even if you pack it perfectly, you still will end up with 67 percent of the volume as air," Wen Wang, a co-author of the MIT research, told Newsweek. Wang and her colleagues aim to knock that number down significantly, by creating a flat noodle that changes shape when exposed to water, which enables manufacturers to use pasta that could be "packed flat and save space." The MIT scientists created an edible cellulose coating that causes the pasta to bend when in contact with moisture, depending on how much cellulose is printed onto the noodle.

The idea is a practical solution to a category of math called packing problems, which focuses on optimizing the most efficient ways to pack items of a given shape into a container.

And it won’t just be for the big pasta companies. In addition to helping eliminate inefficient packaging methods, this pasta tech will be available for the everyday consumer to design their very own noodle at home. “We envision that the online software can provide design instructions, and a startup company can ship the materials to your home,” said Lining Yao, lead author of the research. “With this tool, we want to democratize the design of noodles.”

MIT didn't go into detail of when we can expect the pasta revolution to hit shelves, but we'll keep an eye out. And if you can't wait for science to help you design your own noodle, check out our pasta making guide.