Ancient Art of Origami Shapes High-Tech Gizmos

Article excerpt

When Taketoshi Nojima envisions the future, he pictures it in collapsible terms.

The Kyoto University scientist imagines people lounging on foldable furniture and living in houses that compress rather than crumble during an earthquake.

His inspiration springs from an unlikely source - origami.

Long regarded as a children's hobby, the Japanese folk art - which creates delicate objects from intricately folded squares of paper - is riding a wave of newfound enthusiasm from scientists, mathematicians, and engineers around the country and, increasingly, across the globe.

Researchers have tapped into the craft's abundant hidden rules, angles, and limits, poising them to revolutionize the design and function of everything from water bottles to the "crumple zones" of cars.

"Origami theory can be used for anything," says Mr. Nojima, one of the country's leading experts in the field. "Because origami is everywhere."

Nojima is applying principles of the ancient art to design more energy-efficient satellites. In the United States, Robert Lang, a former NASA researcher and origami master, drew on his knowledge of the form to create a software program, called TreeMaker, that scientists at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California used in designing a more portable telescope that unfolds like a flower.

And Ichiro Hagiwara, a Japanese scientist, is rethinking the way cars absorb energy in a crash in light of origami's fold lines.

From folding maps to folding cars

Evidence of origamic applications is everywhere: Maps, airbags, tents, instant food packaging, and domed stadium roofs are just some examples of products that utilize the mathematical elements of the traditional craft.

Unlike many bulky and esoteric theorems, scientists say that origami's mathematical beauty lies in its simplicity. The folded lines merge to create a poetic, seamless geometry.

While the math behind origami's industrial purposes borrows from the spirit of its conventional counterpart, one key difference exists - three-dimensional properties. Though an origami crane may appear 3-D, it's actually 2-D because it's created from a single plane.

Engineers say by using 3-D origami, solar panels can readily expand in space and plastic beverage bottles can collapse like an accordion under reverse, twisted pressure.

The benefit of 3-D origami is that "there is good stability in one direction and very weak resistance in another direction," says Arzu Gonenc Sorguc, a visiting professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology from the department of architecture at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey.

Some scientists propose that this characteristic - which makes a structure withstand various external and internal forces - can even save lives. …