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Designing a structure for the future, inspired by the past

February 19, 2018

ASU professor's new mechanical design could change aerospace, health, robotics

To help usher in the 21st century with a radical new mechanical structure, Hanqing Jiang reached back to the eighth century for inspiration.

The Arizona State University mechanical engineer was inspired by origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding, to create a mechanical structure that can unfold and lock to support massive loads.

Jiang has been interested in the potential of origami since leading a team that developed a stretchable battery three years ago.

His new structure is simple, a cylinder that unfolds and then locks into place.

“It can be easily deployed and carry a load,” said Jiang, a professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “Once deployed, it can be very rigid.” 

The model Jiang built can support a 2,000-pound weight. A paper on the design was published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Springs are inside the support tubes, allowing them to expand and collapse. “It’s very neat mechanical work,” Jiang said.

Even when constructed out of only stiff paper and rubber bands, the structure will support a 10-pound weight.

“As far as we know, this is the first piece of work that can have selective collapsibility,” Jiang said.

It’s a creative design that could influence everything from spacecraft to robotics to medicine, said Kyle Squires, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“One of the unique facets of this work is that it combines the old and the new in really creative ways, in this case the aesthetics and ancient techniques of origami with the pillars of engineering mechanics,” Squires said. “This in turn opens up thinking about how to create structures and new designs in areas where the challenges are immense, from stents to expandable modules for spacecraft.”

In robotics, the structure could change stiffness in an exoskeleton, like Iron Man’s armor in the Marvel movies, where the plates expand and then lock to become rigid. Jiang explained that the stiffness of the structure could be tuned to achieve such a result.

Inflatable modules already are being tested on the International Space Station. However, they aren’t load-bearing. Jiang’s design could add more room to the space station or other spacecraft, or to a habitat on Mars or the moon, while also withstanding enormous stress.

Shrink it down, and the cylinder could be deployed as a stent in cardiology or neurosurgery.

“This structure can have broader implications,” he said. “(It) has lots of applications.”

Top photo: Ancient origami inspired the work of ASU mechanical engineer Hanqing Jiang. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU-developed children's game brings Frankenstein back to life, again

Make science come ALIVE! for kids with ASU's interactive Frankenstein200.
February 19, 2018

Classic tale is the backdrop to engage youth in scientific and ethical questions for emerging technologies in the modern world

The 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein" has ushered in a new creation — but it’s something entirely different than the familiar eponymous creature.

Victor Frankenstein’s legacy lives on as Frankenstein200, an interactive, transmedia experience for children that retells Shelley’s novel through an exploration of science.

The project, developed by a team at Arizona State University with scientific advisement from the Museum of Science in Boston, uses videos, web pages, puzzles and games to follow Dr. Victoria “Tori” Frankenstein and her research assistant, Maya, in their “Laboratory for Innovation and Fantastical Exploration,” or L.I.F.E. for short.

The game contemporizes the novel’s familiar themes of creation through various science and thought experiments, asking participants to examine and reflect on questions such as “What makes us human?” as well as the social and ethical implications surrounding emerging technologies.

An engaging in-person element, which bridges the online story experience, is made possible through physical “maker kits” that contain instructions, guides and videos for hands-on experiments. Maker kits for the game were developed in partnership with the National Informal STEM Education Network and have been awarded to more than 50 museums across the nation, including the Arizona Science Center.

illustration from Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea."

Ed Finn, founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU, said that one of his favorite activities from the kits includes the creation of an anthropomorphic creature called a “scribbler," which is created using household objects.

“You give this creature a name, decorate it with googly eyes, attach markers to it and turn it on, and it starts scribbling on paper," said Finn.

Pretty cool, but the project also presents its creator with interesting moral questions, Finn added. "Let’s say the creature you created drew on something really important and caused a lot of damage. … Who would be at fault? Would it be your responsibility or the creature’s?”

Kit experiments, like the scribbler, serve to generate conversations about the deep connection between creativity and responsibility in emerging technologies.

“It’s really important to engage children on these topics now,” said Finn.

Bob Beard, communication and public engagement strategist for the Center for Science and the Imagination, agreed.

“We are currently living in this moment where we have the ability to create things that really change the world in very fundamental ways — high school students are already engaged in creation experiments through robotics, maker activities and synthetic biology competitions like iGEM,” said Beard. “We need to start thinking and having conversations about the implications of what we create and release in the world.”

Finn added that these conversations aren’t limited to fields such as synthetic biology or robotics.

“It’s really about using the Frankenstein story as a thought experiment that we can apply to all sorts of different fields,” he said. “Even if you haven’t heard of Mary Shelley ... everyone’s familiar with the story of Frankenstein and feels comfortable reinventing it for themselves. In that way, it’s a transmedia story, and we can use it to have people talking about science and society now.”

frankenstein 200

More information about the game can be found at

Frankenstein200 and were created by Arizona State University under a grant from the National Science Foundation (award number 1516684).

Jamie Ell

Media Specialist , Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation