Morphing noodles start flat but bend into curly pasta shapes as they’re cooked

The grooved noodles could cut down on pasta packaging

four different types of pasta curled in bowls and uncurled on a black surface

Pasta that starts out flat morphs into curls, spirals and tubes when cooked, potentially allowing for flat pasta that would save packaging space.

Morphing Matter Lab/Carnegie Mellon University

This pasta is no limp noodle.

When imprinted with carefully designed arrangements of grooves, flat pasta morphs as it cooks, forming tubes, spirals and other shapes traditional for the starchy sustenance. The technique could allow for pasta that takes up less space, Lining Yao and colleagues report May 5 in Science Advances.

Pasta aficionados “are very picky about the shapes of pasta and how they pair with different sauces,” says Yao, who studies the design of smart materials at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. But those shapes come at a cost of excess packaging and inefficient shipping: For some varieties of curly pasta, more than 60 percent of the packaging space is used to hold air, the researchers calculated.

Yao and colleagues stamped a series of grooves onto one side of each noodle. As the pasta absorbed water during cooking, the liquid couldn’t penetrate as fully on the grooved side, causing it to swell less than the smooth side of the pasta. That asymmetric swelling bent the previously flat noodle into a curve. By changing the arrangement of the grooves, the researchers controlled the final shape. Computer simulations of swelling pasta replicated the shapes seen in the experiments.

Carefully arranged grooves allow flat pasta to morph into tubes, spirals and other shapes, which may reduce packaging waste. This method also works for silicone.

The technique isn’t limited to pasta: Another series of experiments, performed with silicone rubber in a solvent, produced similar results. But whereas the pasta held its curved shape, the silicone rubber eventually absorbed enough solvent to flatten out again. The gluey nature of cooked pasta helps lock in the twists by fusing neighboring grooves together, the researchers determined. Removing the silicone from the solvent caused the silicone to bend in the opposite direction. This reversible bending process could be harnessed for other purposes, such as a grabber for robot hands, Yao says.

The pasta makes particularly good camping food, Yao says. A member of her team brought it along on a recent hiking trip. The pasta slips easily into a cramped pack but cooks into a satisfying shape.

Emily Conover

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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