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Engineers develop cutting-edge origami that doubles the strength of materials

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Sep 15, 2015, 2:05 PM EDT

Origami is hundreds of years old, and though most folks know it for creating little paper birds, the ancient art is also a nifty exercise in engineering mechanics. A team of researchers have decided to tinker with the math behind those pretty little birds — and they’ve made one heck of a cool discovery.

Basically, a team working across Georgia Tech, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Tokyo have developed a new “zippered tube” configuration that makes paper structures stiff enough to hold weight while still being able to fold flat for easy shipping and storage. The potential applications range from how we construct stuff in space to how we ship packages here on Earth. Plus, it looks insanely cool.

It essentially works like this: They built their model on the existing origami technique Miura-ori, and make zigzag folded strips of paper that are glued together to form a tube. Through trial and error, they figured out that interlocking two tubes in a zipper-like fashion made them very stiff and hard to bend. But even with that stiffness, the overall structure can still fold flat. Maximum usability, with maximum portability.

“Origami became more of an objective for engineering and a science just in the last five years or so,”Illinois graduate researcher Evgueni Filipov told a school publication. “A lot of it was driven by space exploration, to be able to launch structures compactly and deploy them in space. But we’re starting to see how it has potential for a lot of different fields of engineering. You could prefabricate something in a factory, ship it compactly and deploy it on site.”

Along with paper, the research team posits the “zippered tube” method could potentially be applied to other materials (i.e. plastic, metal, etc.). The technique could be used to create robotic arms that could “reach out and scrunch up,” folding construction cranes and emergency shelters that could “pop up” quickly in the event of a disaster.

The findings were first published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Check out a video of the origami art in action below and let us know what you think:

(Via Georgia Tech, Gizmodo)