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Origami technology

Feb. 16, 2007
Special to World Science  

O­ri­ga­mi—the gen­tle Jap­a­nese art of fold­ing pa­per in­to lit­tle sculp­tures—is tak­ing on some high-pow­ered roles late­ly. Phys­i­cists have been us­ing it to solve an ar­ray of prob­lems in fields rang­ing from tel­e­scope phys­ics to med­i­cine.

Wa­ter Strid­er, opus 472 by Rob­ert J. Lang. Com­posed of one un­cut square of Ori­ga­mi­do pa­per in 2005.


Rob­ert J. Lang, an ori­ga­mi art­ist and form­er phys­i­cist based in Al­a­mo, Ca­lif., de­scribed some of the work in an ar­ti­cle in the Feb­ru­ary is­sue of Phys­ics World mag­a­zine. 

“In the last few dec­ades sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers have be­gun in­ves­ti­gat­ing the sur­pris­ing­ly rich math­e­mat­ics un­der­ly­ing ori­ga­mi, and along the way have found a wide range of ap­pli­ca­tions for the an­cient art,” he wrote.

“Although there are still rel­a­tively few spe­cial­ists in sci­en­tif­ic ori­ga­mi, there are enough to fill a good-sized con­fer­ence hall. Rough­ly once eve­ry five years since 1989 these ex­perts have or­gan­ized an in­ter­na­tion­al meet­ing,” most re­cent­ly at the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy last Sep­tem­ber.

Ori­ga­mi com­mon­ly uses a sin­gle, un­cut square of pa­per, from which the art­ist fash­ions an ar­ray of shapes mere­ly by fold­ing. Such strict lim­i­ta­tions might seem to place a tight cap on how many de­signs can be made, Lang wrote, but in the 1970s math­e­mati­cians found that the num­ber was vir­tu­al­ly end­less.

Tes­se­la­tion, by Rob­ert J. Lang. The reg­u­lar ar­ray of square twists il­lus­trates the way ori­ga­mi can be used to cre­ate com­plex de­signs that fold in and out in on­ly one, pre­de­fined way. This can be use­ful in sci­en­ti­fic ap­pli­ca­tions. Com­posed in 1999. 


Sci­en­tists have put the prin­ci­ples of ori­ga­mi to prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion since the 1990s, he added. Of­ten it comes in handy for ob­jects that need to be col­lapsed in­to a small space dur­ing trans­port to some suit­a­ble lo­ca­tion, then re-o­pened au­to­mat­i­cally.

That fi­nal lo­ca­tion can vary wide­ly—from or­bit around Earth, to an ar­tery in the body, for ex­am­ple.

The Space Flight Unit, a Jap­a­nese sat­el­lite launched in 1995, used so­lar pan­els that folded and un­folded ac­cord­ing to an ori­ga­mi-based pat­tern called Miura-ori, which had al­so been iden­ti­fied in nat­u­ral struc­tures such as leaves. 

The sys­tem was de­signed to en­sure that as soon as one joint was opened, the whole thing would un­furl in a pre­de­fined way, re­duc­ing chances of mis­takes dur­ing unfold­ing in space.

A model for an ori­ga­mi stent, in stain­less steel. Its width ex­pands from 12 mm to 23 mm. In prac­tice, flex­i­ble ma­te­rials are best in place of steel, the makers say. (Cour­te­sy K. Ku­ri­ba­ya­shi, Z. You/Uni­ver­sity of Ox­ford)


In the ear­ly 2000s, re­search­ers at Ox­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, U.K. de­vel­oped an anal­o­gous con­cept for a heart stent, a ti­ny tube placed in a blocked ar­tery to prop it open and re­store blood flow. 

The tube must be big enough to hold the ar­tery open, but small enough so that doc­tors can ma­neu­ver it in­to place by thread­ing it through a long stretch of blood ves­sels with­out in­ju­ry. The re­search­ers used an ori­ga­mi pat­tern called the “wa­ter­bomb base” to col­lapse the met­al de­vice to less than one-sixth the size dur­ing the jour­ney.

Lang him­self has col­lab­o­rat­ed with en­gi­neers at the Law­rence Liv­er­more Na­tion­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry in Liv­er­more, Ca­lif. to de­sign a fold­ing space-based tel­e­scope the width of a soc­cer field, but fold­a­ble to fit in­to a rock­et. 

The team built a ful­ly func­tion­ing min­ia­ture of the in­stru­ment; sad­ly, fund­ing for the real thing fell through, he wrote. 

Oth­er de­signers are work­ing on ori­ga­mi fold­ing pat­terns to be ap­plied to car air bags, re­tract­a­ble car roofs and col­laps­i­ble shel­ters. Devin Balkom of Dart­mouth Col­lege in Han­o­ver, N.H. has cre­at­ed the world’s first gen­er­al-pur­pose ro­bot that can fold ori­ga­mi, Lang not­ed.

“De­spite these de­vel­op­ments, there are still ar­eas where the po­ten­tial of ori­ga­mi has yet to be tapped. One such ar­ea is con­sum­er goods,” Lang con­clud­ed. “O­ri­ga­mi lies on the bound­a­ry be­tween art and sci­ence, just as con­sum­er elec­tron­ics blends tech­nol­o­gy and fash­ion, for ex­am­ple with the iPod. It is prob­a­bly on­ly a mat­ter of time be­fore ori­ga­mi and con­sum­er goods are brought to­geth­er.”


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Origami—the gentle Japanese art of folding small squares of paper into little sculptures—is taking on some more high-powered roles lately. Physicists have been using it to solve an array of problems in fields ranging from telescope physics to medicine. Robert J. Lang, an origami artist and former physicist based in Alamo, Calif., described some of the work in an article in the February issue of Physics World magazine. “In the last few decades scientists and engineers have begun invest igating the surprisingly rich mathematics underlying origami, and along the way have found a wide range of applications for the ancient art,” he wrote. “Although there are still relatively few specialists in scientific origami, there are enough to fill a good-sized conference hall. Roughly once every five years since 1989 these experts have organized an inter national meeting; the latest such event was held at the California Institute of Technology in September last year.” Origami commonly uses a single, uncut square of paper, from which the artist fashions an array of shapes by folding. Such strict limitations might seem to place a tight cap on how many designs can be made, Lang wrote, but in the 1970s mathematicians found that the number was virtually endless. Scientists have put the principles of origami to practical application since the 1990s, he added. Often it comes in handy for systems that need to be collapsed into a small space during transport to some suitable location, then re-opened automatically. That final location can vary widely—from orbit around Earth, to an artery in the body, for example. The Space Flight Unit, a Japanese satellite launched in 1995, used solar panels that folded and unfolded according to an origami-based pattern called Miura-ori, which had also been identified in natural structures such as leaves. The system was designed to ensure that as soon as one joint was opened, the whole thing would unfurl in a precisely defined way, reducing chances of mistakes during unfolding in space. In the early 2000s, researchers at Oxford University, U.K. developed an analogous concept for a heart stent, a tiny tube placed in a blocked artery to prop it open and restore blood flow. The tube must be big enough to hold the artery open, but small enough so that doctors can maneuver into place by threading it through a long stretch of blood vessels without injury. The researchers used an origami pattern called the “waterbomb base” to collapse the metal device to less than one-sixth the size during the journey. Lang himself has collaborated with engineers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. to design a folding space-based telescope the width of a soccer field, but foldable to fit into a rocket. The team built a fully functioning miniature of the instrument; sadly, funding for the real thing fell through, he wrote. Other designers are working on origami folding patterns to be applied to car air bags, retractable car roofs and collapsible shelters. Devin Balkom of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. has created the world’s first general-purpose robot that can fold origami, Lang noted. “Despite these developments, there are still areas where the potential of origami has yet to be tapped. One such area is consumer goods,” Lang concluded. “Origami lies on the boundary between art and science, just as consumer electronics blends technology and fashion, for example with the iPod. It is probably only a matter of time before origami and consumer goods are brought together.”