On February 15, 2017, PBS aired the documentary, The Origami Revolution, which looked at the way engineers use origami to design drugs, micro-robots, and to conduct space missions. This intersection of technology and the arts is made possible in part by Iowa State Professor of Aerospace Engineering, Christina Bloebaum.
While Bloebaum was a program officer with the National Science Foundation (NSF), she proposed a new idea for one of NSF’s more unique programs, EFRI, Emerging Frontiers for Research Innovation. The goal of EFRI is to fund high-risk research that explores the cutting-edge of science and engineering.
Bloebaum’s cutting-edge idea actually involved no cutting at all. Along with Glaucio Paulino and Clark Cooper, Bloebaum’s idea was to explore the folding and unfolding of materials and structures to reduce the amount of parts used during production.
“What I was looking at was an idea of how we could reduce parts in manufacturing using compliant mechanisms and collapsible folding parts,” Bloebaum said. “When Glaucio and I got together he said, ‘Since we’re focusing on folding and different scales, we ought to specifically think about origami.’”
Origami is the centuries-old tradition of folding two-dimensional paper into three-dimensional shapes. One of the most common origami
structures that people are familiar with is the paper crane, but Bloebaum, Paulino, and Cooper wanted to see if that type of thinking could be applied to engineering, biology, and medicine.
The new program, ODISSEI, Origami Design for Integration of Self-assembling Systems for Engineering Innovation, received a majority of the EFRI funding in the first year, despite being one of three programs. The program’s success led to an unprecedented second year of funding
ODISSEI awarded nearly $30 million in 2012 and 2013 to 15 projects that all explored new paths of technology through the eyes of origami.
The PBS documentary profiled a few of the 15 projects that received funding, including self-folding robots, a collapsible solar array, and the folding of proteins to fight disease. In addition to exploring the engineering side of origami, the documentary also showed the advances being made on the biological side, which is something Bloebaum wanted to focus on when creating the program.
“We wanted to do something more than just traditional engineering structures,” Bloebaum said. “Before my pitch I talked with Larry Howell, one of the people who was on the documentary that we funded, about the potentials of compliant mechanisms.
The idea behind compliant mechanisms is to use one piece of material that can move and change function as force is applied in one way or another. Hinges and levers aren’t used, thereby reducing the potential for failure. Compliant mechanisms and origami have many similarities, including using one material than can bend and fold as pressure is applied.
The use of origami design in science and engineering is only beginning to grow, and at a rapid pace. Since the creation of the ODISSEI program, scientists have found ways to create an Origami fold pattern from any object, as well as creating a 3D structure with a single sheet of paper.
Click here to watch the full documentary from PBS which features a number of the research projects funded by ODISSEI.