Finding functions for paper folding

What the applications of origami?
14 January 2020

Interview with 

Larry Howell, Brigham Young University


Five Paper boats


There's science behind origami, but is there any origami behind science. Larry Howell is at Brigham Young University in Utah, and he spoke with Adam Murphy about the work his group is doing, finding functions for folding...

Larry - So you can think of origami, you know, starts out in a flat sheet, so it's very compact, but then as it folds up sometimes it's very complex shapes. So what that does is it gives us the ability to do things where we want a device that's very compact in one state, but then can expand out and do something complex in another state. So two examples of that are getting, say, solar panels or large antennas into space. If I want a huge solar panel in space, I can't just launch it there, I need it to be very compact for launch, and once it gets into space to deploy that. And so that's some of our early work with NASA, was to look at different options of how to use these origami principles to do things to launch into space. Another one is to do surgical instruments. So you would prefer to have a very small incision when you go into surgery, because that helps to decrease the recovery time and the trauma. And so now if we could have a small incision to go into the body for surgery, but then have it expand out and do complex tasks inside the body, then that is just a really good idea that helps patients in a lot of ways. The less obvious couple of applications that we've done: one was a bulletproof ballistic barrier. So it's kind of weird to think of, "Hey, I can make origami bulletproof." In this case we're using Kevlar, which is a bullet-resistant material, but then finding ways to fold that up; and so now you have a bulletproof barrier that can be very compact to be stowed when it's not needed. So let's suppose it's a police officer and they're storing this in their boot, and come out and need this ballistic barrier because there's something going on; and now they can pull that out and deploy it.

Adam - What kinds of things do you have to consider when you're trying to make something that isn't paper, foldable?

Larry - Paper is a very unique type of material. When you crease it, it delaminates; which means that the microscopic structure, what's going on inside of the paper, all kind of breaks apart. And what happens is it makes the paper that much more flexible at that point. So we've all experienced the thing where we crease a piece of paper and unfold it, and it will unfold right there at that same place where we put the crease. But now, do an experiment and go to your kitchen and get some aluminium foil - that you might use for cooking or something - and crease it like you do paper, and then unfold it flat again. And you'll find that it does not unfold at that crease. You have actually made that material stronger at the crease by doing something we call work hardening. And so other materials do not fold, and crease, and then unfold like paper. And so you have to find other ways to do that. What we've done is defined some creative ways of using cuts and other things, and we call them surrogate folds or surrogate creases, something to replace a paper crease.

Adam - And just lastly, what do you reckon the future is for this field? Where do you think it could go?

Larry - What's exciting about this is this is really just the beginning. As we discover these fundamental concepts of what makes it all work, how we can translate it into materials other than paper, we're finding very stunning applications. But there are so many things that we've just not conceived of, and as other people understand what they can do with this, there's going to be just continued explosion of applications, new uses of origami, and it's exciting to be a part of.


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