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CMU Researchers Make Paper Move On Its Own Thanks To A Super Thin Conductive Layer

Carnegie Mellon University
Paper cut in the shape of a flower that responds to touch.

A team of computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University has developed a technology that makes run-of-the-mill paper move on its own.

The paper is cut into a shape, such as a flower, and treated with a thin conductor that's either applied by a 3-D printer or painted on. It adds only a half millimeter of thickness. The paper is then folded or bent into a shape and heated in an oven.

At that point, an electrical current, heat, or touch will cause the paper to uncurl; when the stimulus is removed, the paper goes back to its natural curled state.

Credit Carnegie Mellon University
A paper robot curls and uncurls to pick up a cube of paper.

Lining Yao, director of CMU's Morphing Matter Lab, says this technology gives new artistic possibilities to a medium that has been used for thousands of years.

"You can combine all the practices people have been doing, now with the animated property," Yao said.

This summer, the technology was used to make pop-up books that bring works of art, like Van Gogh's Starry Night, to life with movement. 

Yao's vision for the technology includes wallpaper with flowers that can move.

"It could even be a visual weather broadcast," she said. "Say today is going to be a sunny day, all the flowers will blossom."

Yao said she'd also like to create a wallpaper that expresses how polluted the air is in real time, for use in countries such as China and India. On more polluted days, the colors on the paper would become more muted. 

For now, Yao said her lab is working on speeding up the paper's movement as it goes back to its resting state. 

Kathleen J. Davis covers news about just about anything at WESA. She’s also the primary reporter and producer of WESA’s weekly series Pittsburgh Tech Report. Kathleen originally hails from the great state of Michigan, and is always available to talk about suburban Detroit and Coney Island diners. She lives in Bloomfield.