MIT’s Shape-Shifting Noodles Are the Mystiques of the Pasta World

Although pasta is pasta, the shape of the noodle, like the type of mug you drink your coffee out of, somehow affects the taste. Maybe your Fettuccine and Cavatappi are made out of the same ingredients, but sometimes one type of noodle looks perfect for an Alfredo while the other seems like an unholy crime against the Soprano family and your taste buds. That problem may be remedied by MIT’s latest invention, however: the shape-shifting noodle. Like Mystique from X-Men, these pasta particles can take on an uncountable number of forms, and one day soon you may only need one box of pasta to suit any occasion.

Popular Science picked up on MIT’s latest culinary breakthrough, which comes out of the school’s Tangible Media Group. The Tangible Media Group aims to “seamlessly couple the dual worlds of bits and atoms,” and it’s done so in the past with mind-blowing inventions like “living” shape-shifting clothes and a morphing “Snakebot” that wants to replace all of your current personal gadgets.

This time around, the mega-tech brain trust turned its sights on pasta, although this happened somewhat by accident. Lining Yao, who lead the shape-shifting noodle team—Adult Swim, please make that show—told Popular Science that she was working with “adaptive materials for a long time” and decided to go with the idea of a self-folding dumpling in order to please both her professors, and her mother. From there, apparently, it was one small step to shape-shifting noodles, and one giant leap for pasta-kind. (Pasta-kind being made up of people like Dev from Master of None.)

In terms of how the noodles actually change shape, that boils down to the ingredient makeup of the noodles and how those ingredients are affected by water respectively. Essentially, the noodles, which begin as flat sheets, are made up of one layer of gelatin (the water-soluble protein that’s used to make food items like JELL-O) and one layer of cellulose, which is used as, among other things, a dietary fiber. Because the gelatin and cellulose absorb differing amounts of water—the cellulose far less than the gelatin—the more absorbent layer folds around the less absorbent layer. Depending on the densities of the layers, the ultimate shape the noodle forms can be adjusted.

Aside from providing a sweet pasta party trick to have up your sleeve, the authors of the pasta research (which was presented at this year’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems) say that this new technology could allow huge savings on packaging and delivery costs, as flat noodles take up far less space than pre-folded noodles. This is great news for a company like, say, Target, which, incidentally, helped to fund this research.

What do you think about these shape-shifting noodles? Let your thoughts unfold in the comments below!

Images: MIT / Tangible Media Group

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