Nano-origami project combines art and engineering to further technology

With an origami-like approach, manufacturers could use existing machinery to make high-tech “paper” that can be folded into the desired device.

Two men sitting Enlarge
Artists and engineers come together at the Initiative Artist Collective in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to discuss the possibilities of nano origami. Image by Laura Rudich | Michigan Engineering

Engineers and artists at the University of Michigan will receive nearly $2 million from the National Science Foundation for a four-year research campaign to find out whether the ancient art of origami could bring nanotechnology into the third dimension.

Industry is highly proficient at patterning flat surfaces down to the nanometer scale, but integrating nanostructures into larger and 3-dimensional materials and devices has proved trickier to master. With an origami-like approach, manufacturers could potentially use existing machinery to make high-tech “paper” that can then be folded into the desired device.

Pei-Cheng Ku (above right), co-investigator and an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, phrased the challenge in terms of his area, electronics that work with light: “Pretty much 90 percent of nano-photonics work is restricted to flat designs, so how do we create something that is 3D and manufacturable?”

Max Shtein, principle investigator and an associate professor of materials science and engineering at U-M, hopes that the methods to be developed in this project as part of the NSF origami initiative could start a wave of innovation akin to the way that other inventions sparked new directions and industries.

The team of engineers and artists will explore whether folding methods can build better solar cells, data routers and wireless antennas, among other applications. Yet their main objective is to uncover processes that lay the foundations for using origami and other paper-folding techniques to make nanoscale devices.

“This particular program is really geared toward producing fundamental knowledge,” said Shtein. “We want to say, ‘Look, here are the principles, this is how you can apply these principles. Can we have industrial engineers put the ideas into wider practice?’”

In addition to the five engineering investigators on the project, Matt Shlian, a lecturer in the School of Art and Design, will play an integral role in helping the team tap into paper-folding methods. He and Shtein began collaborating about seven years ago, when Shlian sent a DVD and samples of his work to 50 researchers at U-M, but this is their first funded scientific project together. In early meetings, the group discussed topics such as whether lasers could reproduce Shlian’s paper-scoring technique on scales a thousand times smaller than the thickness of a strand of hair.

In addition to presenting their work at scientific conferences, the team is counting on Shlian’s connections to the art world to help them reach out to people in nontechnical fields. Shtein looks forward to tangible paper displays or interactive paper-folding exhibits at venues like the Ann Arbor Art Fair, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Ann Arbor Hands-on Museum and other venues.

While the structures that the researchers develop in their labs may be too small to see with the naked eye, Shlian’s paper forms can make the shapes and their purposes accessible to anyone.

“If you can hold something in your hand, you can understand it,” Shlian said.

In addition to the researchers named above, other co-principle investigators are Nicholas Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Engineering as well as a professor of chemical engineering, biomedical engineering, materials science and engineering and macromolecular science; Sharon Glotzer, the Stuart W. Churchill Collegiate Professor of Chemical Engineering, as well as a professor of physics, materials science and engineering and macromolecular science; and Anastasios John Hart, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

More photos available on the Michigan Engineering Flickr site

Story by Katherine McAlpine
Source: U-M Press Release