Applying origami concepts in medical mask design to improve shipping, storage

Posted: November 4, 2020

Researchers at The Ohio State University are exploring design alterations that could enable a self-assembling, pop-up structure for medical masks critically needed in the fight against COVID-19.

Face masks are effective tools in helping protect health care workers and the community against the further spread of COVID-19. However, the curved 3D shape of the protective material designed to fit one’s face can also make the equipment difficult to efficiently pack and ship.


Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Assistant Professor Ruike (Renee) Zhao and her team are exploring the fundamental mechanisms and design that allow the rapid transformation of pop-up structures from a nearly flat shape to a three-dimensional one, which has the curvature distribution of a N95 respirator. Investigators hope the research can allow for novel innovation in the design of personal protective equipment (PPE).

The project, “Origami-Based Extremely-Packed Multistable Pop-Up Design for Medical Masks,” earned a National Science Foundation (NSF) Early-concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER). The program supports early-stage, but likely transformative, projects deemed to be potentially “high risk-high payoff,” meaning investigators are expected to take radical approaches and novel perspectives in their research. Zhao’s research is supported by NSF’s COVID-19 Research program.

“One key objective of this project is to fold the respirator into a small capsule that only occupies one thirtieth of the respirator’s original area for space-saving packing,” said Zhao, “This would allow the respirators to be easily carried around when not using or easily transported when shipping in a large number. In addition, the concept can also be applied to biomedical devices, such as medical stent”.

Zhao, who leads the Soft Intelligent Materials Laboratory, joined Ohio State in 2018 through the Materials and Manufacturing for Sustainability Discovery Theme, operated by the Institute for Materials Research.

“Our team at Ohio State is utilizing numerical and theoretical tools to study the instability of the origami ring and guide its structural design for optimized buckling behavior,” Zhao said. "Through finite element simulations, we can analyze the origami rings’ energy landscapes when the rings are subjected to mechanical loads. The insight from the simulations would provide us the design parameter for the maximum folding ratio. These parameters will be passed to our collaborating team at Georgia Tech for 3D printing of the origami ring.”

The team hopes the research can be applied to the design of PPE beyond masks, such as medical eyewear and gowns.

Zhao received two other NSF awards in 2020, a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for her research in the mechanics of soft intelligent materials and a grant for her project “Micromechanics of Interactions Between Hard Magnetic Particles and Soft Matrix on Magneto-Mechanical Actuation.”

by Mike Huson, Institute for Materials Research