What makes pasta unique is the food’s iconic varieties of shapes: tubular penne, ribbon-like tagliatelle, bow tie-shaped farfalle.

But these same shapes also make pasta a pain to package — you need big boxes or plastic bags to sell it at the store.

The Morphing Matter Lab at Carnegie Mellon University may have found a solution: Imprint tiny grooves in different patterns onto flat pasta dough, add hot water and watch it transform into spirals, tubes and twists.

Flat pasta can be packed compactly like sticks of gum, saving a lot of space and a lot of waste. The plastic used in food packaging ends up in landfills in vast quantities, and becomes non-biodegradable litter everywhere, especially in the world’s oceans.

The Morphing Matter Lab picked pasta because it’s one of the most popular food commodities, and America is both its biggest producer and consumer (along with Italy).

It’s an approach informed by observing nature.

“A lot of organisms, especially plant seeds or tree seeds like a pine cone, are responding to the moisture, or the rain, and also transform,” says Lining Yao, an assistant professor with CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute and College of Engineering, who founded the Morphing Matter Lab in 2017.

Another inspiration is the furniture industry, which sells flat-pack products to save packaging and shipping space.

“If you compare macaroni with our flat-pack pasta you can save more than 60% of the space that was air (in the package),” says Yao.

The process can make a dozen different pasta shapes. Shape is all-important when it comes to pasta; each holds a different proportion of sauce and has a different mouthfeel.

Pasta created by CMU’s Morphing Matter Lab. Photo courtesy of CMU.

The Morphing Matter Lab team also thinks that flat-packed pasta could lower the carbon footprint inherent in cooking pasta because flat pasta seems to cook faster than conventional pasta.

The team went on a camping trip near Pittsburgh to test the flat-packed pasta “in the wild.” Ye Tao, a former visiting postdoctoral researcher at the Morphing Matter Lab — and lead author of the study — found that the flat pasta took up less space in her bag and didn’t break while hiking. Most importantly, it also tasted good cooked on a portable camp stove.

“The morphed pasta mimicked the mouthfeel, taste and appearance of traditional pasta,” she noted.

Yao thinks that not only pasta manufacturers will be interested, but also chefs looking for new experiences for their customers.

“You can also ‘program’ these pastas for fun,” she says, giving the example of a flat pasta that morphs into the shape of a heart. “Think about this for parties, like birthdays, special occasions, for when people propose (marriage) in Italian restaurants.”

Pasta created by CMU’s Morphing Matter Lab. Photo courtesy of CMU.

The study, Morphing Pasta and Beyond, is the cover story for the May issue of the journal Science Advances. Seventeen researchers from CMU, Syracuse and Zhejiang University in China contributed.

The research could have implications outside the kitchen because the process can affect any “swellable” material (that grows in size).

“This could potentially be used in soft robotics and biomedical devices,” says Wen Wang, a former researcher affiliated with the Morphing Matter Lab.