Art and engineering intersect in a new design for origami structures that scientists see uses for in everything from shipping packages to exploring outer space.

The researchers call their creation a "zippered tube." Made of interlocking, zigzagging paper tubes, the design fortifies paper so that it can hold much more weight than would otherwise be possible, they report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. When not in use, the structure can fold flat for compact storage and shipping.

"Origami became more of an objective for engineering and a science just in the last five years or so," said study co-author Evgueni Filipov of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a statement. "A lot of it was driven by space exploration, to be able to launch structures compactly and deploy them in space. But we're starting to see how it has potential for a lot of different fields of engineering. You could prefabricate something in a factory, ship it compactly and deploy it on site."

The design is by no means limited to paper. The researchers hope to apply this method, known as Miura-ori folding, to a variety of materials including plastic and metal to build robots, furniture, and more. Miuro-ori folding involves cutting out carefully-measured zigzag strips of the material and gluing them together to form a tube.

"The geometry really plays a role," said Glaucio Paulino of Georgia Tech, in a statement. "We are putting two tubes together in a strange way. What we want is a structure that is flexible and stiff at the same time. This is just paper, but it has tremendous stiffness."

In addition to being versatile in terms of materials, the zippered tube design is scalable enough to apply to microscopic structures for biomedical devices as well as large structures. Paulino envisions a future in which the technology is used for quick-assembling shelters and bridges in disaster areas as one potential use, but the design is extraordinarily versatile.

Other tempting applications include pop-up furniture, scrunchable robotic arms, and construction cranes that fold and unfold to adjust their height. This versatility could even take the design to beyond Earth, since storage is incredibly limited aboard spacecrafts.

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