CTT 1-9-2018

[Image above] Inspired by origami, Cornell University researchers created small devices one-fifth the diameter of a hair that could pave the way for next generation robotics at the nanoscale. Credit: Charles Walcott; Vimeo

Ever since the Japanese created art out of folding paper, origami has inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of unique objets d’art.

But origami is not just for artists. It is now inspiring physicists and engineers to create nanoscale structures.

Researchers at Cornell University have fabricated a tiny robot exoskeleton that can bend and move in response to chemical or thermal environmental changes. These tiny machines can eventually be used as a robotics platform to perform electronic, photonic, or chemical functions.

What the team built was actually an exoskeleton for electronics, explains John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science Paul McEuen in a Cornell news release. “Right now, you can make little computer chips that do a lot of information-processing … but they don’t know how to move or cause something to bend,” he says.

The power behind the team’s microscopic machines is a thin bimorph, which is a motor made out of two materials—a single graphene sheet bonded to a nanometer-thick layer of glass that reacts to stimuli. The bimorph, created by physics postdoc and team lead Marc Miskin, operates when a strain—such as a voltage, heat, or chemical reaction—is put on one of the layers, causing it to bend. Because graphene and glass have different responses to a particular stimulus, they expand by different amounts.

And this is where the scientists create their “nano origami.” By adding hard stiff panels in specific places, the researchers can create and control folds to make structures of different shapes and sizes. Think of “folding” these structures at a nanoscale level.  Miskin shows in this video (1:17) how the devices quickly bend and return to their original position, releasing stored up energy.

Credit: Charles Walcott, Vimeo

“One of the very cool things about working with nanoscale origami is that it’s fast,” Miskin explains in the video. “Things can take place much, much quicker because the hinges themselves are so thin. And typically, the amount of time it takes in order to say, heat a bimorph or push chemicals into it scales with the thickness.”

The researchers state that because of graphene’s strength, their devices can be used in manufacturing semiconductors as well as other electronics applications. “If you want to build this electronics exoskeleton,” Miskin adds, “you need it to be able to produce enough force to carry the electronics. Ours does that.”

“We could design a processor like the Intel 4004 that is small enough that can fit on a machine,—a device that we’ve made…that is a fifth of a hair diameter,” physics professor and team member Itai Cohen says excitedly. “That means that you can put the computational power of the spaceship Voyager on a machine that is smaller than the width of a hair.”

The paper, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is “Graphene-based bimorphs for micron-sized, autonomous origami machines” (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1712889115).

Watch the video below to learn more about the team’s research.

Credit: Charles Walcott; Vimeo

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