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October 27, 2014

NSF helps launch origami into space

21st century engineering applications for this ancient art form continue to unfold

Most people who know of origami think of it as the Japanese art of paper folding. Though it began centuries ago, origami became better known to the world in the 20th century when it evolved into a modern art form.

In the 21st century, origami has caught the attention of engineers who are using it to create all sorts of new structures--from collapsible packaging to airbags for cars. Origami has even found its way into space!

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), mechanical engineer Larry Howell and a team of researchers from Brigham Young University collaborated with NASA to design a solar array that can be tightly compacted for launch and then deployed in space to generate power for space stations or satellites.

The collaboration began when Howell received an NSF grant to explore combining origami with his focus on compliant mechanisms, which are typically single-piece structures that are jointless and flexible.

The folded designs of origami are typically more flexible, have few moving parts and require less maintenance than traditional ones, and what works for paper can also work for fiberglass, acrylics--even titanium! Howell's original origami-inspired inventions include medical devices such as artificial spinal disks and injectable forceps, called Oriceps.

Whether the goal is catching solar rays in space or devising a better way to inject DNA into a cell, Howell and his team make it look good on paper--and more!

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1240417, Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation-Origami Design for the Integration of Self-assembling Systems for Engineering Innovation (EFRI-ODISSEI): Uniting Principles of Folding and Compliant Mechanisms to Create Engineering Systems with Unprecedented Performance.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Marsha Walton, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.