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Intellect

BYU's origami engineering research garners NSF award, national recognition

Research team wins 'Vizzie,' work featured at new MOA exhibit

Over the last five years, BYU mechanical engineers Larry Howell and Spencer Magleby have established themselves as some of the nation's experts in applying origami to engineering.

This week their work is being recognized nationally once again. Today the National Science Foundation and Popular Science announced BYU's origami research team as winners of a People's Choice Award in the 2015 Vizzies for their video, "How Origami is Inspiring Creativity."

The video (embedded above) was produced by BYU News in conjunction with the researchers, and details their work applying the ancient art of origami to modern engineering.

That work features a major collaboration with scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and world-renowned origami artist Robert Lang. The partnership devised a spacecraft-compatible solar array that dramatically expands to 10 times its stored size once launched in space.

"The deployable solar array is a wonderful example of a structure that originated in the world of origami, but then is adapted, transformed and refined to be suitable for a technological application," Lang said.

The BYU team has also pursued other origami engineering applications, such as:

  • Instruments that can be inserted through small incisions before expanding inside the body to perform minimally invasive surgery
  • Microscopic devices small enough to insert DNA into mouse egg cells as a tool for conducting genetic research
  • Collapsible sterile shrouds for movable X-ray machines in operating rooms

In talking to Popular Science, Howell said his work on origami is the most fun he's had in 20 years of teaching and research in the field of mechanical engineering. In fact, some of BYU's work is on display as part of an origami exhibit that just opened at the BYU Museum of Art. The award-winning video is also part of the MOA exhibit, which goes through June 20.

"The motions are so dramatic, it's so visual, and there's so much potential for applications," Howell told Popular Science. "These things can really go out and make a difference."

Lang said the unfolding applications of origami for engineering and technology are just beginning.

"You would think that as a field of exploration it would have been played out long ago. But the opposite is true," he said. "It's as vibrant and growing as ever. And furthermore, as we look to the future, there are no limits on the horizon of what's possible."

BYU's video production team, led by producer Julie Walker and cinematographer Brian Wilcox, worked with Howell, Magleby, BYU student origami artist Matthew Gong, and Lang to create the winning video.

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