World > Asia Pacific
from the September 17, 2003 edition

Ancient art of origami shapes high-tech gizmos

Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

(Photograph)
BLOOMING SCIENCE: A compressed paper model of the solar sails from a space satellite (top) unfolds into a fluid origami spiral.
TOKYO INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
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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.

Mr. Hagiwara launched a research project this year to construct cars with an origami-like structure that would absorb more energy from collisions and minimize injury to passengers.

For 24 years, the impassioned engineer worked for the Nissan Motor Company, studying the science behind automobile accidents. But it was only recently, after he read Nojima's research on 3-D origami, that a new application clicked in his mind.

"Suddenly, I understood that we could use origami to reduce the impact on crashes," he says. "I had never thought about it in this way before."

Train-tunnel origami

Buoyed by the promise of such applications, Hagiwara's group has also patented a way to reduce concrete crumbling in high-speed train tunnels, which poses a major threat to the safety of railways in Japan. The idea is to mount foldable beams and steel nuts onto the inner surface of the tunnels, something that could absorb pressure, Ms. Sorguc says.

"It is called origamic because when you bring the structure to the site it is folded and when you mount it, it expands," she says.

Nojima, who works in the department of aeronautics and astronautics, has proposed using origami to build more energy-efficient solar sails for space satellites. His plan uses the least possible surface area, and the sails blossom once in space with one fluid motion. Pulling on opposite sides of a paper origami spiral shows the effect.

The idea draws on that of Koryo Miura, another Japanese space scientist who engineered the elegant, "one-pull" method of map folding and also developed origami techniques to apply to space satellites during the 1970s.

Origami's relationship to nature sparked Nojima's interest when he noticed similar patterns appeared in the spiral sequences of sunflowers and snails. His principle that living things can connect organically to man-made objects spawned the concept of a folding house designed with criss-crossing steel beams.

"During earthquakes or natural disasters, we could move such a house ... and reuse [undamaged] parts," he says. This, he adds, would be in keeping with "the trend to help the environment."

At the heart of all of the ongoing research - most of which probably won't come to fruition for another five to 10 years - is the hope that origami will be recognized as more than child's play.

"There is meaning in origami now," Sorguc says. "It shouldn't be considered as a toy anymore, but as something real and useful for engineering."