Who needs to keep a package of ready to eat macaroni and cheese from spoiling for three years at room temperature? If you're planning a trip to Mars, the answer could be yes.
Researchers at Washington State University say they have found a way to triple the lifespan of ready to eat food. In the case of the macaroni and cheese, researchers believe they have found a way to keep macaroni from spoiling for three years.
Previously the max lifespan the researchers could get for macaroni and cheese was 12 months using plastic. But using microwave-assisted thermal sterilization and adding a organic coating to metal oxide coating to the plastic can allow food to last three times longer.
“We need a better barrier to keep oxygen away from the food and provide longer shelf-life similar to aluminum foil and plastic laminate pouches,” Shyam Sablani, a researcher with WSU, said in a statement. “We’ve always been thinking of developing a product that can go to Mars, but with technology that can also benefit consumers here on Earth.”
While using metal oxide coating has been around for sometime, there was a flaw with the coating developing cracks to allow the food to be exposed to oxygen.
“We are excited that an over-layer of organic coating on metal oxide helped protect against microscopic cracks,” Sablani said. “Multiple layers of metal oxide coating have also increased the barrier performance. Our research guided development of newer high barrier packaging.”
Researchers like Sablani are hopeful the new technology could assist NASA in preserving food for a potential trip to Mars. With current technology, a trip to Mars could last at least two years. A one-way trip to Mars alone could last at least nine months.
“NASA knows about our work, but we’re just now getting to the point where we can talk to them with a proven product,” Sablani said. “We hope to work out a way to test these products on the International Space Station in the future to show that the food is safe after long-term storage.”
NASA has said its benchmark is for food to last five years. Sablani's team has food that is currently being aged to see if it is possible to store ready to eat meals for five years.
Even if the technology might not be used for a trip to Mars, it could be of interest for the military.
The packaging could be used for "meals ready to eat or MREs.