Carnegie Mellon University
May 13, 2021

CMU Lab Leads Development of Pasta That Morphs

Flat-packed noodles create more sustainable packaging, transportation and storage

By Aaron Aupperlee

Aaron Aupperlee
  • School of Computer Science
From tubes of penne and rigatoni to spirals of fusilli and rotini — the iconic shapes of pasta make the staple food a bear to package.

A research team led by the Morphing Matter Lab at Carnegie Mellon University is developing flat pasta that forms into familiar shapes when cooked. The team impresses tiny grooves into flat pasta dough — made of only semolina flour and water — in patterns that cause it to morph into tubes, spirals, twists and waves.

The morphed pasta looks, feels and, most importantly, tastes like traditional pasta, opening new possibilities for food design and allowing for flat-packed pasta that would cut back on packaging, save space in storage and transportation, and possibly reduce the time and energy needed for cooking.
"We were inspired by flat-packed furniture and how it saved space, made storage easier and reduced the carbon footprint associated with transportation," said Lining Yao, director of the Morphing Matter Lab in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at CMU's School of Computer Science. "We decided to look at how the morphing matter technology we were developing in the lab could create flat-packed pastas that offered similar sustainability outcomes."

The team published their understanding of the morphing mechanism and design principles in the paper "Morphing Pasta and Beyond," which is the cover story of the May 2021 issue of Science Advances. Authors include 17 researchers from CMU, Syracuse University and Zhejiang University, specializing in fields including material science, mechanical engineering, computational fabrication and design.

The grooves stamped into the flat pasta sheets increase the time it takes water to cook that area of the pasta. By carefully planning where and how to place the grooves, the researchers can control what shape of pasta forms when it is cooked.

A photo of a plate of pasta
Morphing pasta shapes before and after cooking.

"The groove side expands less than the smooth side, leading the pasta to morph into shape," said Teng Zhang, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who led the modeling analysis in this project.

Grooves can be used to control the morphed shape of any swellable material. The team has demonstrated that it can morph silicon sheets using the same groove technique.

"This could potentially be used in soft robotics and biomedical devices", said Wen Wang, a former researcher affiliated with the Morphing Matter Lab.

The plastic material used in food packaging contributes greatly to landfills worldwide, and packaging litters the world's oceans. Creating effective food packaging is crucial to reducing waste and shaping a sustainable future.

The morphing pasta builds on years of research by Yao and the Morphing Matter Lab on morphing mechanisms and applications with different materials ranging from plastic and rubber to fabric and food.

The research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the CMU Manufacturing Futures Initiative and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

— Related Content —