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This Freakishly Strong Origami Can Make Pop-Up Bridges And Buildings

The design could help cities rebound quickly after a major disaster.

After a major natural disaster, one of the biggest challenges is how to quickly rebuild basic infrastructure. A lot of logistics are required to ship everything needed to build a bridge or house–and, once it arrives, time to put it together.

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It’s a problem that inspired IKEA to build flat-pack refugee shelters and another designer to build houses that stack together like coffee cups. And now researchers have a prototype for a new potential solution: ultra-strong origami that can pop up into a house or even a bridge.

“You can preassemble it at a plant, drive it out, place it on site, and that way you can deploy it quickly,” says Evgueni Filipov, a graduate researcher from the University of Illinois who worked on the prototype with professors Glaucio Paulino from Georgia Tech and Tomohiro Tachi from the University of Tokyo. “You can save labor on site, and the construction will be much faster.”

The new technique folds a strip of material into a zigzagging shape and then joins two strips together. When it becomes a tube, it’s incredibly stiff and strong. But it can still be folded completely flat, making storage and transportation simple.

“If you have a single flat sheet of material like paper, it’s very easy to twist and bend it,” Filipov says. “But as you start to couple it, you start forming a tube. Think of a tube–like a toilet paper roll–it can actually be quite a stiff structure. When we put two tubes together, we’re able to maintain the origami aspect where the structure can fold and unfold, but it’s also stiff.”

Filipov and Paulino, both civil engineers, started working with Tachi–an origami expert–a few years ago. Filipov spent six months in Tokyo experimenting with different structures. The prototypes the team built are paper, but the technique can be applied to any thin material, like metal or plastic.

By tweaking the geometry, the “zippered tubes” can become exactly as stiff as needed for a particular design and then combined with others to build a structure.

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Beyond disaster shelters, the design could be used at a nano-scale to make biomedical robots. A factory could use origami cranes that can fold and unfold to lift products. And–like some earlier origami engineering projects–it could be used in space to move around things like solar panels.

“If you’re launching satellites, you want them to be compact when you’re launching them,” says Filipov.

On a building, origami shades could be designed to unfold when it’s sunny and fold up again when they’re not needed. Inside, the technique could be used for pop-up furniture.

Now, the researchers are working on the next steps to make the prototypes real. “There’s a lot to be done with the geometry, fine-tuning the details of how we can get different types of origami structures,” he says. “And another aspect is the manufacturing–actually making these systems possible for real engineering structures.”

Their research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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