The Print Shop: Sci-Fi Inkjet Printers

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An example of printed sushi paper from the Moto restaurant.
An example of printed sushi paper from the Moto restaurant.
If you are what you eat, at Moto restaurant in Chicago, you are edible origami. The Canon i560 inkjet printer employed there doesn't just print the menus; it prints menus you can eat.

Homaru Cantu, the executive chef, prints menus and many other items onto edible starch-based paper. Instead of using the typical CMYK inks--cyan, magenta, yellow, and black--Cantu has filled the cartridges with edible solutions. Think SSSB: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, the four attributes our tongues detect.

Cantu uses combinations of these four liquids on the edible paper to create dishes unlikely to be found anywhere else, such as "baked map of Alaska" and a type of maki sushi that he wraps in flavored paper bearing images of sushi, instead of seaweed.

What inspired this novel idea? "Eating paper as a kid," says Cantu. "I used to eat money." You can eat money too, if you choose--or a tastier facsimile thereof. Cantu's first attempt at faux food was paper seasoned to taste like a bun, which he ate with an all-American hotdog. Since then, his aspirations have grown to delivering downloadable haute cuisine: "In the military they have MREs [meals ready to eat]. If you have a satellite connection, why not have beef Bourguignon tonight?" In the future, perhaps a soldier would need only a mobile printer outfitted with four edible-ink cartridges, and he could download and print one of thousands of meals.

Cantu's idea is to have a printer capable of creating every flavor imaginable. How about raccoon? One customer brought a masked critter into Moto for preparation. Cantu served a dish topped with a printed drawing of a raccoon. He didn't create the flavoring directly from the creature, however--"that would take all day"--though he did create a taste somewhere in the neighborhood of venison.

The illusion is what excites the chef. He sets the mood and lets diners know what taste to expect. "It [the power of suggestion] is everything," says Cantu. "It's one big joke--nothing is what it seems."

Cantu also makes food using a laser printer and edible thermal paper. So what's in the toner drums? Cantu isn't letting the cat out of the bag (though he might print an edible approximation someday).

Print Me Some Skin

But edible paper is nothing compared to what scientists are aiming to print with inkjets: living tissue and transplantable organs. One project's goal is to create graftable skin with a modified inkjet printer. Thomas Boland, an assistant professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, and Anthony Atala, a researcher at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina, hope to use "bio-ink" to print skin tissue that could be grafted onto burn victims.

If creating tissue by this method is possible, printing organs would be the next step. A research team headed by biological physicist Gabor Forgacs at the University of Missouri-Columbia is pursuing this possibility. The team's research involves printers that place bio-ink onto successive layers of gel. On February 16, the team reported that cells had self-assembled, which is essential to creating "organ modules" that could be used to test drugs--or to create entire organs fit for transplanting.

Print a Circuit Board, or a Display

Inkjet technology may also play a big role in manufacturing ultra-thin circuit boards and big display panels. Seiko Epson has used inkjet technology to fabricate very thin 20-layer circuit boards, as well as to create a 40-inch organic light-emitting diode display. In manufacturing the OLED displays--which could replace LCDs--a print head places ink made of light-emitting polymer onto a glass substrate. Such displays are likely to hit the market in 2007, according to the company.

Take Note

Photo Multifunction Printer: In late February Epson announced the Stylus Photo RX620, a inkjet multifunction device designed to print photos. The $299 device uses six individual ink cartridges and can back up photos to a memory card or to an external drive. Also, it has a built-in film strip adapter. The product arrives on the heels of Canon's photo-oriented MFP, the Pixma MP780, which I discussed in my last column.

Your Right to Low-Cost Toner: Also in February, Lexmark lost a court case in which it sought to block other companies from selling inexpensive, refurbished toner cartridges for Lexmark printers. In its suit, Lexmark had alleged that a third-party manufacturer of printer components violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

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