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Materials science and engineering and chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Shu Yang is one of the main professors working on this project.

Credit: Luke Chen

Professors and students in the Physics Department are using the ancient method of origami to improve methods in engineering from nanostructures to computer screens.

Randall Kamien, a physics professor, and Shu Yang, materials science and engineering and chemical and biomolecular engineering professor, along with faculty at Cornell University, recently won a grant from the National Science Foundation to do research on the makeup of nanostructures using origami as a model.

The grant is $2 million and will be given over a four-year period.

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Yang, who works with graduate and Ph.D. students from a variety of schools, is currently in charge of making new materials. One of the team’s main goals is to improve the nanostructures that go into a variety of microstructures essential to many commonly used products, such as the liquid crystals in computer screens.

Their research could also be potentially applied to creating emergency shelter structures that can be folded flat for ease of use.

Yang, who has collaborated with Kamien for many years, is mostly interested in the fabrication and folding potentials of different materials. “We study how the materials would respond to external stimuli,” Yang, who works primarily with material science engineers, said.

The team is investigating how the smaller subunits of materials are structured and trying to improve their efficiency by using origami paper to model how these structures would work.

They have created paper and plastic prototypes of their work and are using these models to figure out the structures in molecules.

“We are designing particular geometric arrangements,” she added.

These molecular arrangements begin with a type of origami called kirigami, the Japanese word for “cutting and folding.” Yang and her team ask questions such as how to design materials to be folded, which regions need to be soft and which need to be stiff and where on a structure would cuts be most useful.

Kamien studies how different kinds of geometrical forms could be scaled up and down using the Pythagorean theorem, for which the practice of origami is especially suited.

The team is also using origami to study how the pillars that make up the loops and hooks of adhesion structures like Velcro could be improved.

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