Origami’s revolutionary science and tech applications

How is it revolutionizing science and tech

The origins of Origami

Perhaps you saw the recent PBS NOVA program, “The Origami Revolution.” If not, I highly recommend you check it out. The documentary highlights how this previously esoteric Japanese tradition of folding two-dimensional paper into three-dimensional artifacts is inspiring a major scientific and technological revolution.

Origami has ancient roots, going back to the 6th century when Buddhist monks from China introduced paper to Japan. Because of paper’s scarcity at the time, origami was first limited to religious ceremonies. This art form slowly evolved over the centuries, remaining relatively unchanged until the 1950s when Japanese artist Akira Yoshizawa began creating lifelike origami ‘sculptures’ of animals. Then, in the late 1980s, American physicist, Robert Lang, inspired working with origami objects in his free time, laid the foundation for computational origami using geometric mathematical formulas.

The big scientific breakthrough

Origami-based research has been driven by ongoing collaboration between scientists, engineers, and programmers. Their work has radically advanced our understanding of the rules governing how structures unfurl and collapse. These principles cut across many natural world phenomena, ranging from the mechanics of insect flight to the unfolding shapes and tensile properties of proteins.

Biology-based origami engineering deconstructs living organisms into amazingly accurate mechanical systems. Moreover, origami-based algorithms are gaining increasing sophistication. Several scientists in the field have recently published their research findings of their discovering one elegant algorithm they believe can be adapted to creating any 3-D object from a flat surface.

The resulting applications are far more accurate and effective than conventional manufacturing tools. The reason? The highly flexible motion of origami-based structures uses paper’s flexibility, instead of hinges or bearings. Paper can be amazingly strong when folded into complex structures, good enough for many purposes, but not for all. Fortunately, scientists are learning how to use materials like plastics and light metals for substantially greater durability.

Amazing tech applications

Origami-based tech is still another example of how a theoretical scientific breakthrough can generate astounding real world applications. These include things as wide-ranging as robotics, human habitation, and solar panel module deployment in space, bridge construction, easily transported emergency shelters–to new drugs and digestible unfolding pills that show promise of replacing some surgeries.

Next, I’ll describe several of these origami-based tech applications.

Breakthrough macro applications

Who could have predicted a generation ago that the ancient Japanese tradition of origami would have triggered one of the 21st century’s greatest science and tech revolutions? So far I described how origami-inspired mathematical models for folding two-dimensional materials are now being used to design and make everything from emergency shelters to cancer drugs.

Future application of origami

This revolution, based on extensive collaboration between scientists, engineers, and programmers, has revealed underlying rules governing how organic and manufactured structures unfurl and collapse. These discoveries cut across many natural world phenomena, ranging from the mechanics of insect flight to the unfolding shapes and tensile properties of proteins.

One exciting future application is programmable matter—i.e., substances that can change their own properties, including taking on different tasks, repairing themselves, and even ‘evolving.’ –Does this sound like science fiction? Researchers at (the) Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are taking it very seriously.

A sampling of macro applications

  • Architecture – Inflatable tubes made of plastic that fold/unfold when inflated, have been used to create habitable structures. In many applications, exposure to heat, water or electrical current, does the trick. As shapes change, so do their strength and stiffness. Applications include structures ranging from bridges to post-disaster shelters.
  • Space Module Deployment – Origami’s great potential for advancing space research and exploration is based on its ability to compress and then expand large objects, as with the James Webb Space Telescope set to launch in October of 2018. This new technology can also be used to unfold enormous solar sails for a new form of space propulsion with gradual acceleration reaching 0.05% of the speed of light.
  • Vehicle airbags – Designing air bags that are safe and effective requires sophisticated technology. It’s easy to see why origami is the basis for refining the modeling of new airbag designs to ensure they are just rigid enough not to cause serious injury.
  • Vehicle crumple zones – Most cars incorporate front and back crumple zones to absorb the energy of crashes. Some are more effective at saving lives than others. Origami is now being integrated into crumple zone design to improve the energy absorption during impact. That research is still underway.
  • The Folding Microscope – Manu Prakash, of Stanford University team research leader, recently introduced the used Foldscope, an ingenious model for manufacturing origami-based paper microscopes. This breakthrough tool operates under different wide-ranging lighting conditions with enough magnification power to show microbes. The most amazing thing about it is that the cost of its parts is less than a dollar! This is great news for students around the world and researchers in developing countries.

Lastly, I’ll describe micro-level origami applications that will revolutionize medicine and biological research.

Breakthrough macro applications

To recap, I explained how the ancient art of origami has inspired a revolution in science and technology. I described large-scale macro applications resulting from this extraordinary breakthrough. –In this final segment, I’ve saved the best for last—with an introduction to emerging micro-origami applications in health technology and biological research.

Micro marvels

Before origami tech made the process obsolete, tiny robots were assembled by hand under microscopes with tweezers and glue. This process was time-consuming and highly inexact, with a failure rate of 90%. More recently, scientists have been developing much smaller origami-based nanobots, on the scale of microorganisms and DNA, which include microscopic cages and other vehicles used for drug delivery. They are easy to manufacture and integrate seamlessly with many tiny biological structures.

Emerging medical applications include the following.–

  • DNA analysis and drug delivery—DNA is about 100nm in diameter; by comparison, germs are on a scale of 1000nm. Both are accessible with origami-based nanobot technology. Research demonstrates that folding DNA strands facilitate much more effective drug delivery than previous methods. The most promising benefit is new research to encapsulate and deliver drugs that kill cancerous tumors without harming healthy cells. The delivery mechanism will be nanobot-type meds locked into ‘nanobot cages,’ which then release drugs at targeted sites.
  • Fast, inexpensive disease diagnosisOrigami-based paper analytical devices (oPADs) also hold tremendous promise for detecting diseases like malaria and HIV in body fluids. Litmus-like change in color will allow immediate diagnosis, bypassing the need for lab analysis, at a fraction of the cost.
  • Heart stentsOrigami-based heart vessel stents that inflate once in position, resilient enough to open arteries, are a significant improvement over previous methods of catheterization.
  • Retinal implants—Cal Tech scientists are now working to develop an origami-inspired retinal implant to help people with age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. It will greatly improve upon current models for a fraction of the cost. Among other advantages, its flat design will allow for the insertion of a dense array of electrodes, with an elasticity that can accommodate different retina configurations.

And one larger-scale micro application–

  • Tiny drones—Insect-size drones are ideal for many purposes—including unobtrusive intelligence gathering, surveillance of hazardous interior environments and—perhaps one day even the pollination of plants if bee populations continue to decline, an incredibly sad scenario. One remaining challenge is getting ‘RoboBees‘ to hover.