Origami (the Japanese art of paper folding) is appreciated just as a type of arts-and-crafts type thing. Paper cranes, airplanes, and fortune tellers. However, scientists and engineers alike use origami for an incredible range of applications. The way that a ladybird folds down its wings can be used to make an origami pattern for an umbrella, or the folding methods used to make origami animals can be used as inspiration for air bag designs in cars! Here are just a few examples of how origami has be used to shape the world around us.
Heart stents and water bombs
The waterbomb base is a folding technique that folds a single square of paper into an isosceles triangle, which can be inflated into a sphere. This fold has a number of uses – for example, it is the key fold used in making inflatable heart stents. If a patient’s veins are in danger of collapsing, the heart stent is compacted down to travel through the patients veins, and then inflated when it reaches the right place in order to keep veins and arteries from collapsing. (Incidentally, this fold is also used by children around the world – it’s the starting point behind making a paper water balloon!)
The first ‘two dimensional’ material to be discovered, and certainly the most well-known, is graphene. Graphene boasts an incredible range of properties; although it is just one atom thick, a sheet of graphene could hold up an elephant without breaking! In a paper published in the prestigious journal ‘Nature’, a team of researchers used kirigami (another Japanese paper folding technique, allowing cuts to be made in the sheet) to improve upon some of graphene’s already amazing properties. The researchers found that graphene stretches in a very similar way to paper, making it very easy to make models using paper and then try them out on graphene.
this technology could be used to make stretchable nanobots that travel through the bloodstream and administer medical care to a patient!
The first shape tried was a simple paper spring, where a kirigami pattern of slashes allowed the graphene to stretch out, and then contract back again. The conductance of the graphene barely changed as the material stretched! Meaning that this method could be used to design stretchable electronics whose electronic properties don’t change, even if the shape does. 50 years down the line, this technology could be used to make stretchable nanobots that travel through the bloodstream and administer medical care to a patient!
Unfolding solar panels – the Miura fold
Origami has found another use in tackling one of the greatest challenges of our time; the energy crisis. In 1995, Japanese scientist Koryo Miura designed a solar panel that foldss down into a very small space, using a new folding pattern that he called the ‘Miura-ori’ or Miura fold. The Miura fold uses the crease pattern of multiple parallelograms, where the creases run in zig-zag lines going in one direction, and straight lines in the other direction. This folding pattern allows a two dimensional material to be compacted down into a very small area, and then unfolded quickly by simply pulling on one corner.
Now, Brian Trease, whose interest in origami stemmed back from his time as a high school exchange student in Japan, is using the Miura fold together with many other folding types to create a prototype solar panel that unfolds like a flower from a circle of 2.7 metres in diameter, to one of 25 metres.
However, this prototype is still in its early stages, and needs a lot of work done before it can be used. One of the main problems is that origami is designed to be used on paper, rather than solar panels, which are much thicker and more rigid. The team are now looking at what happens when traditional origami techniques are applied to other materials, for example plastic and metal, and how many times these structures can be folded and unfolded before wearing out at the seams.
They also plan to find a way for the prototype to automatically unfold. This would allow solar panels to be deployed into space on unmanned crafts, where they could self-assemble and send energy back to earth. This would be a huge breakthrough in the energy crisis.
The scientific uses of origami are vast, and I am convinced that we have only scratched the surface of what origami can do. It will be interesting to see what future applications origami could have within the scientific world.
If you want to read more about innovative and really revolutionary developements in applying science then try this article where Science Editor Luke Smith explores revolutionary technology from Microsoft using DNA to store data!!