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HERE’S A WIN-WIN for science, for the environment, and for cuisine: a pasta that changes shape from flat to fancy as it cooks.

At first glance, this may seem like a promotional blurb from the International Pasta Council. But, in fact, it’s part of “All the News That’s Fit to Print” in The New York Times, May 5, 2021: “Flat Pasta That Turns Into 3-D Shapes—Just Add Boiling Water,” by Marion Renault. 

Image by Morphing Matter Lab/Carnegie Mellon University, in The New York Times, May 5, 2021.

“Don’t be fooled,” writes Marion Renault. “This pasta may look like your average fettuccine. But cook it for seven minutes in boiling water and it will transform, coiling into a neat spiral.”

It’s the result of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Morphing Matter Lab. “In a paper published Wednesday in Science Advances, the researchers say the flat-to-plump pasta is not only fun to make, but uses less packaging, has a smaller carbon footprint and cooks faster than traditional dried pasta.”

Environmental Benefits. Ye Tao and colleagues note, “The plastic material used in food packaging is a major contributor to landfills in the United States. Finding effective food packaging strategies is crucial to maintaining a sustainable future.”

For example, flat-packed pasta reduces package volume during transportation and storage. Thus, its “carbon footprint” is smaller than that of conventional pasta.

As an additional benefit, flat-packed pasta cooks more quickly than complex-shaped products. 

The Science of Pasta Shaping. I love its technicalities, as described in the researcher’s Abstract: “Morphing structures are often engineered with stresses introduced into a flat sheet by leveraging structural anisotropy or compositional heterogeneity. Here, we identify a simple and universal diffusion-based mechanism to enable a transient morphing effect in structures with parametric surface grooves, which can be realized with a single material and fabricated using low-cost manufacturing methods (e.g., stamping, molding, and casting).”

It reminds me of 3-D printed concrete, the layers of which are selectively aligned to achieve strength in particular directions. A similar idea is employed with the filament alignment in carbon-fiber structures.

And, indeed, engineered pasta has already been a topic here at SimanaitisSays with Voiello Marille as well as Bucatini Confidential.

The trick this time around is to fashion the dried pasta so that it reacts in a desired way in response to boiling water. 

This and the following image from Science Advances, May 5, 2021.

The fusilli lunghi pasta shape evolves in boiling water. As the grooves collide, the pasta surfaces leak amylopectin (a starch), causing them to adhere to each other.

“You can just make a modification to a pasta dough and get a very impressive shape change,” said Teng Zhang, a mechanical and aerospace engineer at Syracuse University and a co-author of the study.

“For the research,” Marion Renault says, “Dr. Zhang developed a computer model that predicted the final transformation of various designs based on factors including how heat and water would change the dough’s gluten and starch during the cooking process. ‘It’s more complex than just swelling,’ he said.”

Gaussian Curvatures. In 1827, German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss published Theorema Egregium, Latin for “Remarkable Theorem,” a major discovery in differential geometry. The theorem introduced the concept of Gaussian curvature, a characterization of inherent shape that’s independent of the space in which the object is embedded.

A sphere, for instance, has constant Gaussian curvature equal to 1/R2. A plane has Gaussian curvature zero. 

By the way, an interesting implication of Gaussian curvature is the cartographic fact that any planar map of Earth (even if only of a portion) will have distortion of some distances. Said mathematically, the sphere and plane are not isometric, even locally.

Pasta shapes of different Gaussian curvature with different grooves: A) zero Gaussian curvatures of parallel lines, B) zero Gaussian curvatures of radial lines, C) non-zero Gaussian curvatures on opposite sides of the substrate.

The researchers write, “We also present nonzero Gaussian curvature shapes, such as saddles and twists, by introducing double-sided grooves. These results indicate an even greater scope for groove-based morphing with an enriched shape space and an increased range of potential applications.”

Marion Renault quotes Jennifer Lewis, a professor of biologically inspired engineering at Harvard: “I think it’s really cool and elegant. Anytime you can bring science to people through food, it’s a huge win.”

And a tasty one too. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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