A single sheet of graphene folded up is micro origami at its best

16 Mar 2016

Origami has been surprisingly prominent in science news of late, with this latest art project the smallest story to date.

Scientists in the US claim to have successfully folded a single sheet of graphene, making it the smallest work of origami known. Both graphene and origami have been utilised before, with robots galore last year, but never has something so thin been successfully manipulated in this way.

According to New Scientist, Cornell University’s Itai Cohen and his colleagues coated a single layer of graphene (one atom thick) with a layer of silicon dioxide glass (half a nanometre thick).

Then, using either heat, electric charges or pH solutions, Cohen’s team could predict how the sheet would expand and contract, resulting in folds.

Just like folding paper

“Folding rules are the same at the macro scale or the micro scale,” he said, noting the fragility of single sheets of graphene when trying to achieve managed folds.

By working out a way to do it, the research has opened the door for various circuit creations in the future, with Cohen adding: “You can imagine printing your entire circuit on one of these sheets, then folding it up into a three-dimensional structure that can absorb light, do some kind of calculation, and report back by emitting light at a different frequency.”

Origami is being used in growing areas lately, even in surgery. But in terms of graphene, last year the descriptively named Untethered Miniature Origami robot emerged from the depths of physics innovation, showing on a larger scale just what Cohen and co are working on.

The relatively giant machine begins as a flat sheet but, like arts and crafts enthusiasts have been doing with paper for centuries, folds itself up into a tiny machine ready to whiz around on land or water.

It weighs 0.31 grams, measures at 1.7 cm on a side, and can travel 3-4cm per second, opening the door for some sort of intravenous installation in humans one day.

However, the far more microscopic origami achieved at Cornell is a whole new ball game. “This really represents the limit,” said Cohen. “There’s not going to be any way to make the sheet any thinner.”

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic