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Harvard-led Research Team Receives Department of Defense Award

Katia Bertoldi leads a team of researchers at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Katia Bertoldi leads a team of researchers at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. By Zadoc I. N. Gee
By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen and Caleb H. Painter, Contributing Writers

The Department of Defense awarded its Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative prize to a team of researchers led by Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences professor Katia Bertoldi for the team’s work studying origami structures.

Twenty-eight research teams across the country received the 2022 MURI award, splitting a total of $195 million in grants. Bertoldi’s team — which won $6.25 million — includes three other SEAS faculty members: Biologically Inspired Engineering professor Jennifer A. Lewis, Applied Mathematics professor L. “Maha” Mahadevan, and Engineering and Applied Sciences professor Robert J. Wood. University of Pennsylvania professor Eleni Katifori and Georgia Institute of Technology professor David Zeb Rocklin also serve on the team.

Rocklin said the process of forming the team and deciding on a research focus was “very interactive.”

“You start to say, ‘okay, well, we have all these talented people. How can we get together and how can we tell an exciting story about how we can really advance the state of the art?’” Rocklin said.

“For us, with the people we had and what we worked on before it was really clear that multi-stable origami was going to be the underlying theme,” he added.

The team’s work focuses on using origami and kirigami-inspired structures that can shift between several different shapes. Understanding how these structures transition between different states and what functions can be achieved in each form provides useful insight for a large range of projects, from robots to solar panels.

Engineers and physicists have been considering the numerous applications of the Japanese art forms for the past decade, Bertoldi explained. But the funding is a major step for the team’s own efforts to study origami.

“This grant gives us an opportunity to explore its integrity so we can really study mathematical principles [behind Origami],” she said.

Bertoldi noted the potential to use structures inspired by origami and kirigami for packaging.

“So, for example, if you want to protect a given object and then you have a crash, how do you direct the energy along specific paths to protect an object like that?” she said.

“We are looking at these different needs and we are trying to design structures that are optimized for a given function,” Bertoldi added.

The MURI award aims to foster the development of technologies that could aid the Department of Defense, per the award’s website. But Rocklin said this is not the main focus of the team’s research.

“It’s going to be something of potential use to the military, but it’s not focused on a particular application,” he said. “It’s about addressing fundamental science questions.”

Rocklin said he finds the exploration of mathematical and scientific principles to be the most interesting part of the project.

“The fundamental science questions of how can we actually take these structures and create new shapes and program spatial complexity into them in ways that nobody's done before — that's personally what I find to be the most exciting thing,” he said.

Looking to the future of the team, Rocklin explained that the end goals of its research project have yet to be determined.

“We have ideas for things that nobody has done before, and we have things we’ll try and we have backup plans if those don't work, and we have a number of different avenues,” he said. “So I don't know exactly where it will be in five years.”

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