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Origami architecture? New shape-shifting material from Harvard could make it possible

Shape-shifting buildings might sound like the stuff of science fiction — but scientists from Harvard have developed a new material that could potentially make such buildings a reality. Objects built with this material that can transform from a complete three-dimensional structure into a collapsed flat surface at the click of a button. While its still just a proof-of-concept at this stage, the origami-inspired material could eventually be the key to portable shelters and architectural structures with some really cool attributes.

Originally, the material was inspired by snapology, an origami technique in which paper structures snap from their folded flat forms to intricate three-dimensional designs. The Harvard material is thin-walled just like its paper inspiration, and it can be used to create virtually any shape. The engineers can control volume and stiffness of a structure made from the material, and can even continuously tune it to adapt to different situations or environments.

Bertoldi Lab/Harvard SEAS

Related: Graphene used to create self-folding origami-like paper

Harvard tested the material with a sample made from extruded cubes that feature 24 faces and 36 edges. By folding along the edges, the material can totally transform its shape or even flatten out to support enormous weights without damage. In terms of technology, they key to the Harvard material design is a series of embedded pneumatic actuators. Actuators allow the team to program any shape, size, or behavior for a structure made out of the new material. That way, the structure can maintain its versatility and many foldable forms without needing any external or human input once programmed.

Bertoldi Lab/Harvard SEAS

Engineers on the Harvard team say that the fully scalable concept could be used in everything from nano-sized designs to huge architectural structures. “This structural system has fascinating implications for dynamic architecture including portable shelters, adaptive building facades, and retractable roofs,” said Chuck Hoberman, a designer on the Harvard team.

We probably won’t see this tech in the real world for a few more years, but keep your fingers crossed and you might get to wander through a shape-shifting skyscraper in another decade or two.