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Reconfigurable origami tubes could make antennas, microfluidic devices

31 January 2016

Origami might provide antennas that can reconfigure themselves for different frequencies or microfluidic devices whose properties can change in operation.

A six-sided polygonal origami tube can reconfigure into two different shapes by changing the direction of folds - from a 'mountain' to a 'valley' (image: Georgia Institute of Technology)

These applications might stem from reconfigurable and reprogrammable origami tubes developed by researchers at three institutions, including Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Tokyo. By changing the ways in which the paper is folded, the same tube can have six or more different cross sections. Though the models are now reconfigured by hand, magnetic or electrical actuators could make the changes when the tubes are used in real-world applications.

The tubes can be folded flat for shipping, and made in a range of sizes from the nanoscale up to architectural scale. By developing the mathematical theory behind the folding, the researchers say they can design tubes with the exact properties needed for a variety of engineering applications. The tubes employ the Miura-ori pattern, one of many unique patterns used in origami.

“We have developed a new type of origami tube that is reconfigurable to many different cross sections,” says Georgia Tech's Professor Glaucio Paulino. “We have also developed a mathematical theory that goes along with it that allows us to design the tubes and predict how they can be reconfigured or reprogrammed.

Fabricating the tubes begins by scoring paper in a device that resembles a computer printer. A special type of cutter in the device follows the researchers’ computer program to make cuts partially through the heavy paper by controlling the cutting speed and cutter force. The cuts facilitate folding and gluing the components to make the tubes, which can be folded flat and then expanded.

The innovation by the research team was to design folds that have two options. One fold might create a section of paper that bulges out of the tube or, alternatively, create a valley in the tube. These variations allow the different configurations to be selected, each producing a slightly different cross section.

“The cross section of each one is different, the area of the tube is different and the properties of the tube are different,” said Paulino. “The ability to create different cross sections is critical, especially for multi-physics applications such as deployable origami coupled with active or responsive materials.”

Among the potential applications are reconfigurable tubes that could carry electromagnetic energy and function as antennas. Different folds would allow them to operate at different frequencies, an application with potential military and commercial interest.

Other applications could range from tiny microfluidic tubes that are able to route liquids, to engineering and architectural-scale applications in ductwork, piping and even structures to provide sun shades for buildings.

Though they’re made of paper, the origami tubes can be designed to be quite strong and to support heavy loads, while being easily foldable when not in use. In practical applications, the tubes would be made from flexible polymers or other materials.

In future work, Paulino and his collaborators would like to establish an actuation mechanism to redeploy the tubes when needed. The system could be operated using magnetised structures, or by electronic means.

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