Researchers win $2 million NSF grant to develop self-folding polymer sheets for new materials

August 27, 2012

A group of scientists and mathematicians led by physicist Christian Santangelo has won a National Science Foundation (NSF) Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) grant for 2012, one of only 15 given to investigators at 26 institutions and totaling nearly $30 million.
 
Santangelo and colleagues including polymer scientist Ryan Hayward are experts in developing self-folding polymer sheets, which take advantage of origami principles to provide highly tunable mechanical responses. Their four-year, $2 million grant is part of EFRI’s Origami Design for the Integration of Self-assembling Systems for Engineering Innovation (ODISSEI) program for developing new mechanical meta-materials.
 
Santangelo explains, “If successful, we will produce new polymer materials whose static mechanical properties can be tuned over a wide range of behaviors, and which can buckle and fold dynamically,” he adds. “Because the theoretical tools we will develop will also be broadly applicable to any material whose expansion and contraction can be made to respond to a stimulus, we expect our research to have broad applicability in many industries ranging from packing materials to artificial tissues and muscles.”
 
The research team also includes scientists at Cornell and Western New England University. They will train undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral polymer science and engineering students and give them the opportunity to attend conferences and workshops with other scientists, origami artists and mathematicians.
 
The group will also contribute to a teacher-training program at Western New England University to use origami as a hands-on way to teach mathematics and material science to K-12 students, and a theatrical performance is currently being written. The artistic prototypes and models produced will be part of a traveling exhibit for science museums.
 
Santangelo says active materials can change their shape, size, and/or physical properties with changes in temperature, pressure, electro-magnetic fields, or other aspects of their environment. With such materials, the EFRI researchers plan to create entire structures and systems out of single pieces that are flexible, elastic and resilient. With new theory and understanding, the researchers aim to predict, and even program the behavior and capabilities of the origami designs.
 
Clark Cooper, who coordinated the origami design awards with fellow NSF program officer Christina Bloebaum, says, “Engineers, scientists, artists, and mathematicians will pursue profound collaboration to discover how to design single structures that can collapse and deploy, and even change functions as desired.”

Image: A polymer gel, programmed by halftone gel lithography, will swell and buckle into predefined shapes such as the fold shown here. These types of folds will serve as modular components that can be combined to build more complex structures.