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Origami’s revolutionary science and tech applications, part II

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? In Part I of this Insights article 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.

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.

In my next and final installment in this series, I’ll describe micro-level origami applications that will revolutionize medicine and biological research.

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