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Self-folding material helps the lazy with origami

It's a bird! Then a boat!

(Qian Zhao / Tao Xie)

For the first time, scientists have developed a smart material that can be programmed multiple times to fold itself into complex shapes — without being melted down first. That means that a short flash of heat can trigger the rubbery polymer to fold itself into an origami bird and then into a boat, following another blast of heat. And what's perhaps even more remarkable is that the polymer can do this trick over and over, without wearing down.

The material could help scientists make reusable medical devices or aerospace structures that can shape-shift into structures that would otherwise be impossible to create, says Tao Xie, a materials scientist at Zhejiang University in China and a co-author of the study, published in Science Advances yesterday. But there's something else that worth nothing about these self-folding wonders. If you look at them long enough, they're oddly calming to watch.

Check out this lil' sheet of polymer fold into an origami bird:

(Qian Zhao / Dr. Tao Xie)

Here, the researchers programmed a windmill to unfold into a boat:

(Qian Zhao / Dr. Tao Xie)

The smart polymer knows which shape to make because it's programmed like a computer, Xie says. The programming process is done by physically folding the polymer at various elevated temperatures. Once that's done, external forces aren't necessary anymore and the polymer can fold on its own.

Now that the researchers have successfully demonstrated the technique, they'd like experiment with other materials, Xie says. The researchers are also working on a version of the polymer that can work at lower temperatures, according to Science Magazine. And that's an exciting prospect because Xie tells The Verge that the current version of the polymer should cost about the same as the plastics that people use in everyday life.