Tag Archives: origami

Scientists develop origami inflatable structures that are stable both inflated and deflated

This inflatable shelter is out of thick plastic sheets and can pop up or fold flat. (Image courtesy of Benjamin Gorissen/David Melancon/Harvard SEAS).

In 2016, cyclism fans watched in shock as an inflatable arch at the Tour de France deflated and fell down on a cyclist, throwing the race into disarray. Organizers later blamed the accident on a passing spectator’s wayward belt buckle, but we all know who the real culprit was: physics.

Inflatable structures, which are used for everything from temporary hospitals to weddings and parties, are monostable — they are stable in one state and one state only, when they are inflated. If they deflate, they fall down.

It makes sense: if you think about common inflatable structures, they have a completely different shape when they’re inflated versus when they’re not. But what if, through some clever geometry, you could design a structure that’s stable in both configurations? In other words, one that’s bistable.

That was exactly the reasoning of a team of researchers at Harvard. Inspired by origami, they started with the simplest geometrical shapes (triangles) and developed a library of triangular building blocks that can be used to build bistable shapes.

Their idea is all the more impressive since it doesn’t need specific materials to work.

“We are relying on the geometry of these building blocks, not the material characteristics, which means we can make these building blocks out of almost any materials, including inexpensive recyclable materials,” said Benjamin Gorissen, an associate in Materials Science and Mechanical Engineering at SEAS and co-first author of the paper. 

They put their idea to the test and developed a tent-sized shelter out of plastic sheets.

The origami approach comes in handy because structures of different shapes and sizes can be designed. Researchers built several structures based on their design, including an archway, an extendable boom, and a pagoda-style structure.

This clever invention could be put to good use. Arches and emergency shelters can be safely locked in place after deployment, without needing a stable inflation source. It’s more robust and easier to install.

“This research provides a direct pathway for a new generation of robust, large-scale inflatable systems that lock in place after deployment and don’t require continuous pressure,” said Katia Bertoldi, the William and Ami Kuan Danoff Professor of Applied Mechanics at SEAS and senior author of the paper.  

The shelters require just one or two people to set up, as opposed to about a dozen, which is the case with current military inflatable hospitals.

“You can imagine these shelters being deployed as part of the emergency response in disaster zone,” said David Melancon, a PhD student at SEAS and co-first author of the paper. “They can be stacked flat on a truck and you only need one pressure source to inflate them. Once they are inflated, you can remove the pressure source and move onto the next tent.”

The study was published in Nature.

Not your sister’s art hobby: DNA origami can save lives

Increasingly, origami (the Japanese art of paper folding) is becoming less of an artistic concern and more of a scientific one. The California Institute of Technology made special news in 2006 about a way to weave DNA strands into any two-dimensional shape or figure. Caltech’s Paul Rothemund called it “DNA origami” — but that was just the start of it.

Image credits: Nikoline Arns.

Imagine strands of DNA folded back and forth, forming a scaffold that fills the outline of a desired shape. Then, imagine more DNA strands specially designed to bind to that scaffold.

Rothemund, the strand-weaver, explained why this was useful. Scientists would find it easy to create and study any complex nanostructures they might want. Quoted in a 2006 press release, in he said he came up with a half a dozen shapes, including square, triangle, five-pointed star, and smiley face.

“At this point, high-school students could use the design program to create whatever shape they desired,” Rothemund said at the time.

Nature News said the binders, DNA ‘staples,’ were short strands “that stop the viral strand from unraveling,” adding that the method could find use in molecular biology and electronics. “The technique could be used to build a flat scaffold to carry microscopic electronic components. Enzymes could also be attached, creating a tiny protein factory,” the article emphasized.

In 2016, Caltech shed new light on the discovery. “The publication of Paul Rothemund’s paper on DNA origami (Nature, March 16, 2006) marked a turning point in DNA nanotechnology, enabling unprecedented control over designed molecular structures.”

Step by step

DNA origami object from viral DNA visualized by electron tomography. Image credits: OrigamiMonkey / Wikipedia.

Well, it’s 2021 and better late than never. The latest news about DNA origami is that Jacob Majikes and Alex Liddle, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), having stayed with the topic of DNA origami for years, have compiled a detailed tutorial on the technique. “DNA Origami Design: A How-To Tutorial” has been published in the Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Majikes and Liddle have provided a step-by-step guide on the design of DNA origami nanostructures, making it easier than ever to design and use this type of structure.

Over the years, the method had attracted hundreds of researchers, said NIST, and for various reasons: Some may be interested in order to detect and treat diseases, or, to assess pollutants’ impacts on the environment and other applications. The two guide authors explained what they did. Namely, they went for the ‘how.’

“We wanted to take all the tools that people have developed and put them all in one place, and to explain things that you can’t say in a traditional journal article,” said Majikes. “Review papers might tell you everything that everyone’s done, but they don’t tell you how the people did it.”

Their journal paper further stated what was needed:

While the design and assembly of DNA origami are straightforward, its relative novelty as a nanofabrication technique means that the tools and methods for designing new structures have not been codified as well as they have for more mature technologies, such as integrated circuits. While design approaches cannot be truly formalized until design-property relationships are fully understood, this document attempts to provide a step-by-step guide to designing DNA origami nanostructures using the tools available at the current state of the art.”

Many potential applications of DNA origami have been suggested in literature, including drug delivery systems and nanotechnological self-assembly of materials, so this is not just some ethereal approach, it has clinical use. For instance, Harvard University Wyss Institute researchers reported the self-assembling and self-destructing drug delivery vessels using the DNA origami in lab tests, and another team of researchers from China and the US created a DNA origami delivery vehicle for Doxorubicin, a commonly used anti-cancer drug. So when someone acts like origami is just cute art, tell them that’s not nearly the case — it could be a real lifesaver.

The rotary actuated dodeahedron (RAD) sampler has five origami-inspired “petals", which fold up to capture a soft-bodied marine organism, such as a jellyfish. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

Scientists design ‘Pokéball’ that safely captures even the most delicate underwater creatures

The rotary actuated dodeahedron (RAD) sampler has five origami-inspired “petals", which fold up to capture a soft-bodied marine organism, such as a jellyfish. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

The rotary actuated dodeahedron (RAD) sampler has five origami-inspired “petals”, which fold up to capture a soft-bodied marine organism, such as a jellyfish. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

You better look out, Squirtle! Researchers at Harvard University and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study recently demonstrated an origami-inspired polyhedral enclosure that can capture and release delicate sea creatures, such as jellyfish or squidsf, without causing any harm.

Gotta catch em all! 

In order to study marine creatures, researchers often have to rely on bulky underwater equipment that isn’t suited for the capture of soft-bodied creatures, which all too frequently get hurt or even killed.

“We approach these animals as if they are works of art: would we cut pieces out of the Mona Lisa to study it? No – we’d use the most innovative tools available. These deep-sea organisms, some being thousands of years old, deserve to be treated with a similar gentleness when we’re interacting with them,” said collaborating author David Gruber, who is a Radcliffe Fellow and Professor of Biology and Environmental Science at Baruch College, CUNY.

The idea for a pokéball-like robotic device was seeded by first author Zhi Ern Teoh, who during his stint at the Harvard Graduate School of Design was studying folding mechanisms through computational means. Brennan Phillips, who used to work in the same lab at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, saw some of Teoh’s designs that involved folding a flat surface into a 3D shape using motors, and suggested that these could be adapted to capturing sea creatures.

Teoh got to work and designed five identical 3D-printed polymer petals, which are attached to a series of rotating joints that form a scaffold when linked together. A single motor is used to apply torque to the point where the five petals meet, causing the entire structure to fold up into a hollow dodecahedron — a twelve-sided, almost-round box.

The folding is entirely directed by the origami-inspired design of the joints and the shape of the petals, requiring no additional energy input.

First author Zhi Ern Teoh tests the RAD sampler, mounted on the ROV Ventana. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

First author Zhi Ern Teoh tests the RAD sampler, mounted on the ROV Ventana. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

In order to test their device, called the Rotary Actuated Dodecahedron (RAD), the researchers traveled to Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, CT. There, the team proved that RAD was able to collect and release moon jellyfish underwater. The next step was testing RAD in-field; the device was mounted on an underwater remotely-operated vehicle (ROV), which dived to depths of 500-700 m (1,600-2,300 ft.). Using a joystick, a human controlled ROV’s manipulator arm to operate the sampler and capture squid and jellyfish in their natural habitats. During both capture and release, no creature was harmed.

“The RAD sampler design is perfect for the difficult environment of the deep ocean because its controls are very simple, so there are fewer elements that can break. It’s also modular, so if something does break, we can simply replace that part and send the sampler back down into the water,” said Teoh in a statement. “This folding design is also well-suited to be used in space, which is similar to the deep ocean in that it’s a low-gravity, inhospitable environment that makes operating any device challenging.”

Teoh and colleagues now plan to design a more rugged version that is more suited to heavy-duty applications, such as marine geology.

The researchers, however, envision a far wilder version of RAD, one equipped with all sorts of sensors, but also a DNA sequencer, such that data can be collected about the size, properties, and genome of a captured soft-bodied animal — before the animal is safely released. It’s “almost like an underwater alien abduction,” commented Gruber.

The findings were reported in the journal Science Robotics. 

Scientists create earwig-inspired origami, with potential applications in space travel, foldable electronics, and tents

What do earwigs, the ancient art of origami, and space satellites have in common? Not much at first sight, but if you’re a researcher at ETH Zurich, it all fits together.

The 3-D-printed imitation of the earwig wing can be folded as compact as its natural counterpart. However, the automatic folding function so far only works in the simplified prototypes. Image credits: ETH Zurich.

Earwigs get a lot of bad rep, but their pincers are actually harmless to humans, and they can’t pass any known diseases to humans and animals. They’re actually quite interesting creatures: their wing expands ten times larger than when closed — one of the highest folding ratios in the natural world, and far better than any structure mankind has developed. This allows the insect to easily fly, but also burrow into the ground without damaging its wings. Earwigs boast another remarkable feature: when open, the wings enter a locked state which allows them to remain stiff without any muscle effort. With a single click, the earwig’s wings become effortlessly stiff.

Researchers wanted to analyze and emulate this performance. Jakob Faber from the research group led by André Studart, Professor of Complex Materials at ETH Zurich, in collaboration with Prof. Andres Arrieta of Purdue University, developed a computer simulation of the wing’s function. They compared it to a conventional origami design (the ancient Japanese art of paper folding) and found that if it employed an origami design with rigid, straight folds, for its wing, the earwig would only be able to expand its wing three times — a much lower performance.

The main difference stems from the elastic folds, which can operate either as an extensional or rotational spring. Also, the insect’s open wing is very stable, but it folds together at the slightest of touch.

The wing of the earwig is an ingenious origami. Image credits: Jakob Faber / ETH Zurich.

The researchers then took the results from the computer model and implemented them in a multi-material 3D printer. In other words, they manufactured earwig-like wings. The spring functions of the connecting folds were programmed into the material with promising results. Researchers were able to develop a spring origami gripper that self-folds, locks and is then able to grip objects without the need for external power.

Despite this seeming like a very theoretical study, it could actually have significant implications for foldable electronics, as well as solar sails for satellites or space probes, which would be light and compact, saving space, weight, and energy. For outdoor enthusiasts, it could also lead to the development of a new generation of ultra-light and compact tents.

“Once you’ve unfolded these things, it’s often impossible to fold them back to their original shape. If, on the other hand, they simply refolded automatically, this would save a lot of hassle,” says Faber, with a playful look.

Journal Reference: Jakob A. Faber, Andres F. Arrieta, André R. Studart. Bioinspired spring origami. DOI: 10.1126/science.aap7753

Origami battery that runs on a few drops of water could revolutionize biosensors

An engineer from Binghamton University, State University of New York designed a new disposable battery that could power biosensors and other small devices in areas where conventional batteries are just too expensive. The battery only uses one drop of dirty water to generate energy. But the best part — it folds up like an origami ninja star.

Image credit: Jonathan Cohen/Binghamton University.

Seokheun Choi, assistant professor of computer and electrical engineering at Binghamton University, working with two of his students developed the new device that’s powered by the bacteria found in dirty water. This isn’t Choi’s first origami battery — his first design was shaped like a matchbox and consisted of four modules stacked together. The star version is made out of eight small batteries connected in a series, measures in at around 6.35 centimeters (2.5 inches) wide and has a better power output and increased voltage than the first one.

“Last time, it was a proof of concept. The power density was in the nanowatt range,” said Choi. “This time, we increased it to the microwatt range. We can light an LED for about 20 minutes or power other types of biosensors.”

Paper-based biosensors are currently used for pregnancy and HIV tests, but their sensitivity is limited says Choi. His battery could allow these sensors to employ fluorescent or electrochemical biosensors with a much better accuracy, even in developing countries.

“Commercially available batteries are too wasteful and expensive for the field,” he said. “Ultimately, I’d like to develop instant, disposable, accessible bio-batteries for use in resource-limited regions.”

The battery unfolds into a star with one inlet at its center and the electrical contacts at the points of each side. After adding a few drops of dirty water on the inlet and the device can be opened into a Frisbee-like shape, allowing each of the eight fuel cells to function. Each module is a sandwich of five functional layers with its own anode, proton exchange membrane and air-cathode.

While Choi’s first battery could be produced for about 5 US cents, the star is a bit more expensive — roughly 70 US cents. This is because the battery is also made with carbon cloth for the anode and copper tape in addition to the filter paper. The team plans to produce a fully paper-based device that has the power density of the new design with lower price tag.

BYU Professor of Mechanical Engineering Spencer Magleby looks over origami-inspired surgical devices. Credit: Mark Philbrick

Using origami, scientists are making the smallest surgical tools yet

Mechanical engineers at Brigham Young University are combining the versatility of origami with mechanical know-how to produce the smallest surgical tools. Their spatial resolution is so large that soon we could make incisions so subtle that they heal themselves, without sutures. All of this without compromising surgical quality.

BYU Professor of Mechanical Engineering Spencer Magleby looks over origami-inspired surgical devices. Credit: Mark Philbrick

BYU Professor of Mechanical Engineering Spencer Magleby looks over origami-inspired surgical devices. Credit: Mark Philbrick

“The whole concept is to make smaller and smaller incisions,” said Larry Howell, a mechanical engineering professor at Brigham Young. “To that end, we’re creating devices that can be inserted into a tiny incision and then deployed inside the body to carry out a specific surgical function.”

The traditional way of going about making surgical tools has been the same for centuries, and right now the industry has reached its limits as far as miniaturization is concerned. By relying on the deflection inherent in origami to create motion, BYU researchers have eliminated key parts previously thought indispensable like pin joints. One day, these sort of origami-inspired tools could become so sensitive that things as small as nerves could be manipulated.

BYU student Jason Dearden helps with the origami-inspired research at BYU. Credit: Mark Philbrick

BYU student Jason Dearden helps with the origami-inspired research at BYU. Credit: Mark Philbrick

One  robotically-controlled forceps developed at BYU can pass through a whole just 3 millimeters in size. Another device, called the  D-Core, starts off flat then expands to two rounded surfaces that roll akin to spinal disc motion.

Considering how small the tools are, and consequently the incisions made, humans are also stressed to their limits. That’s why BYU is working closely with companies like Intuitive Surgical, the makers of the da Vinci Surgical System — a surgical robot. We previously showed readers how precise da Vinci can be as the machine stitched a grape. “The origami-inspired ideas really help us to see how to make things smaller and smaller and to make them simpler and simpler,”  said Spencer Magleby from BYU.

Paper: Michael R. Morgan et al. Towards developing product applications of thick origami using the offset panel technique, Mechanical Sciences (2016). DOI: 10.5194/ms-7-69-2016

DNA origami

Folding tiny origami bunnies out of DNA and why it’s important

The revelation that DNA chemically self-assembles to build life was a game changer. Now, DNA’s self-assembly capability is moving past genetics and into structural mechanics. One of the most astonishing demonstrations involves an automated process which basically 3D prints structures made out of DNA, of all shapes and sizes. For instance, the team at Dresden University of Technology built tiny 3d objects like a bunny, a bottle or even a waving humanoid.

DNA origami

The base pairs that make up a DNA double helix can be envisioned like Lego bricks. These are made out of nucleotide bases Adenine (A), Guanine (G), Cytosine (C), and Thymine (T). A base pair is one of the pairs A-T or C-G, and the nucleotides in a base pair are   complementary which means their shape allows them to bond together with hydrogen bonds. By combining these pairs in certain ways you can end up with predictable shapes. It’s all a matter of putting the pairs in the right order and offering the right chemical and physical conditions, particularly temperature.

Some of the shapes the researchers printed using DNA. Högberg et al, 2015

Some of the shapes the researchers printed using DNA. Högberg et al, 2015

Now, this isn’t exactly new. ZME Science has previously reported a couple of attempts made by scientists which involved building various shapes or even drug delivery capsules from DNA. This most recent study, however, moves DNA origami to the next level because it’s automated. First, the researchers draw a 2D or 3D shape in a design software. The computer then returns a long code complete with necessary sequences of base pairs for the DNA to self-assemble in the desired configuration. This code is then sent to a supplier which delivers tubes filled with 200 or so short strands of DNA. Warming and cooling the tubes, joined together, prompts their contents to assemble – a new bunny is born.

Nano bunny

A DNA nano bunny. Image: Erik Benson and Björn Högberg)

“All the DNA strands find their right place in the structure,” says Björn Högberg, a chemical engineer at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and a co-author of the study.

“Earlier design methods used strategies including parallel arrangement of DNA helices to approximate arbitrary shapes,” explains Hao Yan, who led the research  “but precise fine-tuning of DNA wireframe architectures that connect vertices in 3D space has required a new approach.”

Another thing that’s impressive about the new study is the intricacy of the shapes. Previous DNA origami attempts were somewhat limited in the shapes they could assemble. The most intricate shape assembled in this recent study was an  Archimedean solid cuboctahedron which has 12 vertices and 24 edges. As long as no vertex requires more than 10 strands to join at any point, any wireframe structure can be assembled using this technique. This opens up a slew of possibilities. Imagine designing whole new macrosized objects from the ground up, at the molecular level. The degree of precision would be unparalleled. The greatest benefit would most likely be felt in new kind of medical devices and drug delivery methods, all custom fitted for the patient.

Findings appeared in Nature.

origami bot

Tiny origami bot folds, navigates obstacles, swims, then dissolves. Next: inside your body

origami bot

At the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) conference, a team from MIT, in collaboration with the Technische Universitat in Germany, presented an incredible origami bot that can perform various complex motor tasks. Weighing only 0.3 grams, the bot can scuttle at about 4 cm/sec to crawl up an arm, carry twice its load, dig through a pile of foam, climb a ramp or push a tiny puck along a planned trajectory. At the end, the researchers demonstrate how the entire bot (apart from its magnet) can be dissolved in acetone. Later on, it’s easy to imagine a similar origami bot traveling through your body where it performs various tasks like deliver a medical payload, diagnose for diseases or even perform surgery. It would be designed to be much smaller and with all its parts dissolvable inside the human body after a while or when emerged in a certain bodily solution.

Image courtesy of MIT.

Image courtesy of MIT.

In their aptly named paper, “An Untethered Miniature Origami Robot that Self-folds, Walks, Swims, and Degrades,” the researchers describe how the robot works. Two sets of magnets cycling on and off at around 15 Hz are what propel the robot: a neodymium magnet interacting with  four electromagnetic coils. Due to its asymmetrical structure, the vibrations cause the bot to move in a certain direction. However, the bot starts off rather uniform and flat with the protruding  magnet sitting at the center of the structure, surrounded by  layers made out of either polystyrene or paper. The layers are separated by folds which are only visible as thin lines when the origami structure is flat. Once heated, however, the structure starts folding around the magnetic and dramatically changes its shape.

In the video below released by the researchers, you can catch a glimpse of the kind of tasks this tiny, but resourceful, bot can perform.

The most interesting part is that it can be dissolved. Particularly, in the example shown by the researchers, in acetone. However, it can be manufactured using materials that dissolve in other solutions as well. Ultimately, it might dissolve in the human body, without leaving any trace or causing unwanted side effects once its job is done.

Illustrations that show the origami bot's main structural components, how it folds and modes of locomotion. Image: MIT

Illustrations that show the origami bot’s main structural components, how it folds and modes of locomotion. Image: MIT


Photo: Seth Kroll

Origami-bot folds itself from one single sheet of electronics, then walks away

Photo: Seth Kroll

Photo: Seth Kroll

Inspired by the ancient Japanese art of Origami, engineers at Harvard and MIT have developed an amazing robot that stats off as one single sheet, then folds itself into a complex shape in under four minutes, before making a gentleman’s exit. The potential applications of this display are numerous. For instance, launching payload in space is extremely expensive so any efforts to curve mass or volume are much sought after. Imagine satellites or robots that start off from an easy to transport shape, only to fold into desires geometries once deployed in orbit.

Self-assemble, then run!

The assembly process consists of five steps, spurred by two motors and controlled via embedded microcontroller. (Credit: S. Felton et al./Science

The assembly process consists of five steps, spurred by two motors and controlled via embedded microcontroller. (Credit: S. Felton et al./Science

This is the first demonstrated robot that builds itself and also performs a function, all without human intervention. To build it, the authors took inspiration from Origami and  Shrinky Dinks (the classic children’s toy that shrinks a plastic-paper composite in a rigid form when heated). The whole electromechanical system is embedded in a single sheet, made using a solid ink printer, a laser machine, and the researchers’ hands.

“Getting a robot to assemble itself autonomously and actually perform a function has been a milestone we’ve been chasing for many years,” said senior authorRobert J. Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

Atop the flat sheet, two motors, two batteries and a microcontroller that houses the robot’s brain were added. The sheet is comprised of multiple layers: paper,  polystyrene (Shrinky Dinks!!!) and a flexible circuit board. The polystyrene sheets were mechanically programmed to fold at specific angles when subjected to specific temperatures produced by embedded circuits that light up on command by the microcontroller. After the polystyrene hinges cool, four minutes since the process first starts, these harden making the whole robot stiff. This is the robot’s cue to crawl away casually, at a lean speed of one-tenth of a mile per hour. The whole process goes through an energy expenditure equivalent to one AA alkaline battery. A trifle!

“You would be able to come in, describe what you need in fairly basic terms, and come back an hour later to get your robotic helper,” Wood said. All told, each robot cost about $100, but only $20 for the body without the motors, batteries, and microcontroller.

“This achievement by Rob and his team changes the way we think about manufacturing, in that the machine fabricates itself,” said Don Ingber, founding director of the Wyss Institute, Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School, and professor of bioengineering at Harvard SEAS. “The days of big, rigid, robots that sit in place and carry out the same repetitive task day in and out are fading fast.”

The robot was reported in a paper published in the journal Science.