His inspiration springs from an unlikely source - origami.
Long regarded as a children's hobby, the Japanese folk art -
which creates delicate objects from intricately folded squares of
paper - is riding a wave of newfound enthusiasm from scientists,
mathematicians, and engineers around the country and,
increasingly, across the globe.
Researchers have tapped into the craft's abundant hidden rules,
angles, and limits, poising them to revolutionize the design and
function of everything from water bottles to the "crumple
zones" of cars.
"Origami theory can be used for anything," says Mr.
Nojima, one of the country's leading experts in the field.
"Because origami is everywhere."
Nojima is applying principles of the ancient art to design more
energy-efficient satellites. In the United States, Robert Lang, a
former NASA researcher and origami master, drew on his knowledge
of the form to create a software program, called TreeMaker, that
scientists at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California used in
designing a more portable telescope that unfolds like a flower.
And Ichiro Hagiwara, a Japanese scientist, is rethinking the
way cars absorb energy in a crash in light of origami's fold
From folding maps to folding cars
Evidence of origamic applications is everywhere: Maps, airbags,
tents, instant food packaging, and domed stadium roofs are just
some examples of products that utilize the mathematical elements
of the traditional craft.
Unlike many bulky and esoteric theorems, scientists say that
origami's mathematical beauty lies in its simplicity. The folded
lines merge to create a poetic, seamless geometry.
While the math behind origami's industrial purposes borrows
from the spirit of its conventional counterpart, one key
difference exists - three-dimensional properties. Though an
origami crane may appear 3-D, it's actually 2-D because it's
created from a single plane.
Engineers say by using 3-D origami, solar panels can readily
expand in space and plastic beverage bottles can collapse like an
accordion under reverse, twisted pressure.
The benefit of 3-D origami is that "there is good
stability in one direction and very weak resistance in another
direction," says Arzu Gonenc Sorguc, a visiting professor at
the Tokyo Institute of Technology from the department of
architecture at Middle East Technical University in Ankara,
Some scientists propose that this characteristic - which makes
a structure withstand various external and internal forces - can
even save lives.
Mr. Hagiwara launched a research project this year to construct
cars with an origami-like structure that would absorb more energy
from collisions and minimize injury to passengers.
For 24 years, the impassioned engineer worked for the Nissan
Motor Company, studying the science behind automobile accidents.
But it was only recently, after he read Nojima's research on 3-D
origami, that a new application clicked in his mind.
"Suddenly, I understood that we could use origami to
reduce the impact on crashes," he says. "I had never
thought about it in this way before."
Buoyed by the promise of such applications, Hagiwara's group
has also patented a way to reduce concrete crumbling in high-speed
train tunnels, which poses a major threat to the safety of
railways in Japan. The idea is to mount foldable beams and steel
nuts onto the inner surface of the tunnels, something that could
absorb pressure, Ms. Sorguc says.
"It is called origamic because when you bring the
structure to the site it is folded and when you mount it, it
expands," she says.
Nojima, who works in the department of aeronautics and
astronautics, has proposed using origami to build more
energy-efficient solar sails for space satellites. His plan uses
the least possible surface area, and the sails blossom once in
space with one fluid motion. Pulling on opposite sides of a paper
origami spiral shows the effect.
The idea draws on that of Koryo Miura, another Japanese space
scientist who engineered the elegant, "one-pull" method
of map folding and also developed origami techniques to apply to
space satellites during the 1970s.
Origami's relationship to nature sparked Nojima's interest when
he noticed similar patterns appeared in the spiral sequences of
sunflowers and snails. His principle that living things can
connect organically to man-made objects spawned the concept of a
folding house designed with criss-crossing steel beams.
"During earthquakes or natural disasters, we could move
such a house ... and reuse [undamaged] parts," he says. This,
he adds, would be in keeping with "the trend to help the
At the heart of all of the ongoing research - most of which
probably won't come to fruition for another five to 10 years - is
the hope that origami will be recognized as more than child's
"There is meaning in origami now," Sorguc says.
"It shouldn't be considered as a toy anymore, but as
something real and useful for engineering."