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New 3D Metamaterial Could Make Pop-Up Housing a Snap

It seems like there’s a recurring fantastical element in sci-fi and comic books of – what are the scientific terms here – super shrinkage and major growage. Making something that’s regular-sized tiny or something that’s tiny become regular-sized appears in everything from Ant-Man to Back to the Future Part II (mom sure can hydrate a pizza). Now, thanks to researchers at Harvard, some real-life super-scaling structures may soon be possible, and it’s all based on origami.

Led by Johannes T.B. Overvelde, a team at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences took to the task of making a “versatile, tunable, and self actuated” 3D metameterial, which could theoretically be used to build everything from “deployable space structures,” to “reversible encapsulation systems… medical tools and robots.” And everybody knows what that means: Martian dome houses Mark Watney can carry around in his space pants. Or highly mobile emergency shelters, either one.

For anyone unfamiliar with them, metamaterials are “made from assemblies of multiple elements… arranged in repeating patterns… [and] derive their properties not from the properties of the base materials, but from their… structures.” And in this case, Overlvelde and Co.’s 3D metamaterial is assembled into a repeating structure made up of a series of pneumatically activated blocks—essentially little four-sided plastic cells that expand when air is pumped into them.

pneumatically-pumped

This system is based on a type of origami called snapology, which is used to create complex geometric polyhedra. Or, in other words, super rad paper structures that fold in on themselves, then easily pop back into their original form.

Snapology

The ultimate goal with this 3D tunable metamaterial is to be able to build general purpose structures that can house people, as well as fully expand and fold away at a moment’s notice. There’s no word yet on when a full-scale beta model will be available, but who knows; it could pop up at any time.

What do you think about this 3D metamaterial? Expand your opinions in the comments section below!

HT: The Engineer

Images: Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering, Jo Nakashima

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