Scientists Find Simple Origami Fold Could Form Basis Of Pop-Up Architecture

These are all made using just one fold: the Miura-ori. Mahadevan Lab

Origami, literally meaning “folding paper,” is an art form that originated in 17th-century Japan. Its key principle – taking two-dimensional sheets and transforming them into a near-endless variety of objects – has been taken to new theoretical extremes in a study published in Nature Materials. The authors of this study have concluded that one particular fold – the Miura-ori – could be used to make a huge range of objects, including pop-up furniture and medical devices, from a flat “sheet” of material.

The Miura-ori is a fundamental fold, one that is already used in origami to make a range of shapes and forms. It is a type of “mountain-valley” fold, one that can be packed into a flat, compact shape and unfolded in one fluid, continuous motion. The researchers note that, because of its smooth unfolding mechanism, this shape has already been proposed for use in solar sails, a form of spacecraft propulsion that uses radiation pressure to push large, ultra-thin mirrors through space.

Lead author of this study, Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, professor of applied mathematics and physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), wanted to take this concept further. “Could this simple [Miura-ori] folding pattern serve as a template for more complicated shapes, such as saddles, spheres, cylinders, and helices?" asked Mahadevan in a statement.

These shapes can "build" themselves and collapse in moments. Mahadevan Lab

In order to investigate the potential of the fold, including its ability to tessellate – become a highly symmetric, edge-to-edge series of identical polygons – the research team designed a mathematical algorithm that deconstructed the geometry of the fold. By reducing it to a complex range of geometric equations, an abundance of hypothetical shapes based on the fold could be simulated.

Using this algorithm, the team could then design a target shape, a vase for example, and their software could calculate and illustrate how it could be made from a series of Miura-ori folds. These could then be laser printed for a physical demonstration of their ability to “build” themselves and collapse.

Some of the complex shapes made using the Miura-ori fold. Mahadevan Lab

Hundreds of shapes, all immediately constructed by opening the material sheet in a single, fluid motion, and all rapidly collapsible, were generated by the algorithm – from the nanometer-scale to those the sizes of buildings. Although no “usable” object designs were built, this study proves that one of the simplest shapes in origami could be used to create a vast number of portable, complex constructs in just a few moments.

“The collapsibility, transportability and deployability of Miura-ori folded objects makes it a potentially attractive design for everything from space-bound payloads to small-space living to [keyhole] surgery and soft robotics,” said Levi Dudte, the first author of the paper and a graduate student at the lab.

This isn’t the first time origami has been used for scientific purposes. Just recently, the ancient art was given a futuristic twist, with a team of researchers showing how a “robot” made of graphene could move around by folding itself up, origami-style. Another team showed off their new ultra-thin graphene supercapacitor by folding it into a paper crane shape.


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