Just a couple of guys playing with their new toy (Image: Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

Let’s say we do somehow end up growing grains like corn or wheat on Mars. What fun would that be if we can’t puff them into curls and dust them with cheese?

Purdue University scientists have been tasked with developing a Mars-worthy extruder, the machine which takes ground up raw grains and processes them into cooked or uncooked shapes like you see in pasta, snacks or breakfast cereal. Their NASA-funded design isn’t ready yet, but the designs have made it a worthy tool for folks looking to process grains without access to the equipment in mega food factories.

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Extruders aren’t just for making funny-shaped foods, though. NASA wants to cut the costs on shipping grains, which can cost $200,000 per kilogram, according to the Purdue press release. “We’d plant cereal on Mars and process the food over there,” Carlos Corvalan, associate professor of food science at Purdue University told Gizmodo.

Image: Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

But the prototype is still too massive to be sent on a spaceship. In the meantime, there are further uses of the intermediate-sized model to cook and decontaminate food while quickly turning grain into a more edible form. “Were working to use these in Africa because they can be made directly in a small village. They don’t require too much energy. You can use a tractor to generate the power if there’s no electricity,” said Corvalan.

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The model looks like a meat grinder, but it’s for grain. A chute takes milled grain and water, and then a spinning screw inside the machine generates high heat from friction and squeezes out a long, puffed grain worm. It also squeezes the oils from the grain, so you can imagine extruding soybeans into a pasta or cereal and then using the oil to cook or flavor whatever comes out.

The thing still needs to be modified depending on the grain it’s processing, but the researchers think it could drastically decrease the amount of effort required to turn grain into couscous or quick meals. The machine’s current cost is around 20,000 bucks.

I didn’t ask any folks living in Africa whether they had the need for a portable extruder, a tool essential to our American way of eating but certainly not for day-to-day living. Plus, extrusion under high heat can worsen the food’s nutritive qualities. However, a world without puffy cheese curls does sound horrible, and extruders have made all sorts of food more cheaply and quickly available.

And thank NASA and the heavens that our descendants living on the red planet will still have access to cheese curls.

[Purdue]