Monday, September 19, 2011

Origami and photonics fold together

Gail Overton
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World

Did you know that an origami-based folding solar panel designed by Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura actually flew on a Japanese satellite in the 1980s and is the inspiration for modern solar sails and folded optics in space? It turns out that origami, the Japanese art of folding a single sheet of paper into fabulous three-dimensional designs, has come a long way in recent decades: not just in the complexity of the beautiful art structures that can be fabricated, but in the many everyday uses for origami--some of them directly applicable to the photonics industry.

IMAGE: Origami is more than just small folded planes or party favors. A mathematical equation can define how a single sheet of paper can be folded hundreds (and even thousands) of times to produce beautiful works of art, as well as scientific structures. (Courtesy

In an eye-opening and compelling presentation given at the 2011 Stanford Photonics Research Center (SPRC; Stanford, CA) 2011 SPRC Annual Symposium held last week on the campus of Stanford University (Stanford, CA), Stanford University and Caltech alumnus Robert J. Lang enlightened the crowd on how mathematics plays a role in creating seemingly impossible works of art as well as useful scientific applications in the form of origami.

Lang, who has his own origami website at, explains how "computational origami" became his passion in the design of Eyeglass, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) project to develop a folded optical mirror for a space telescope. The 5 m diameter Eyeglass prototype is a model for how a small, folded form using the concepts of origami could be unfurled once safely in space into a 100 m diameter telescope optic.

IMAGE: LLNL's 5 meter diameter prototype Eyeglass folded-optic mirror is based on computational origami principles. (Courtesy

Lang's website illustrates how origami can be explained mathematically; he even provides a free origami simulation tool that you can download online and a program called treemaker that allows you to turn a stick figure of an object into a work of art by translating that stick figure into a series of peak and valley folds on one sheet of paper. Incredibly, there are mathematical rules that define a functioning origami design.

And thinking beyond art, you might explore how that airbag in your car is folded and how heart stents can be inserted as thin solid tubes and be expanded within the body into cylindrical mesh structures that keep blood flowing freely; the origami connection may surprise you!

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