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Nano-origami project uses art to advance engineering

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.| Medium Read

Engineers and artists at U-M 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 three-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, 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% of nano-photonics work is restricted to flat designs, so how do we create something that is 3D and manufacturable?”

While science often takes nothing more than decoration away from its encounters with art, principle investigator Max Shtein, primarily appointed to the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and paper artist Matt Shlian, of the School of Art and Design, are trying to change that. “It’s like artists and artists collaborating, scientists and scientists collaborating, artists and scientists collaborating – it’s all the same thing,” Shtein said. “The difference usually is in our language and our tools.”

Including the backgrounds of the four other faculty investigators, the team’s collective expertise also spans macromolecular, chemical, biomedical, and electrical engineering as well as physics and computer science. Together, they will explore whether folding methods can build better solar cells, data routers, and 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?”

He hopes that the methods to be developed in this project, as part of the Division of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation’s origami initiative, could spark new directions in industry.

Shtein and Shlian 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. At the kick-off meeting Friday, August 17th in Shlian’s studio, the team discussed topics such as whether lasers could reproduce the artist’s paper-scoring technique on scales a thousand times smaller than the thickness of a strand of hair.

“This is the easy part,” Shtein said of the brainstorming session. “The creativity comes in during the hard work we do in the lab, and in trying to get broader audiences excited and invested in the results.”

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 non-technical 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 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,” said Shlian.

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.

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