Home Education Does cardboard have superpowers?

Does cardboard have superpowers?

Does cardboard have superpowers?

The educator explains: how is it possible that the frame of the beds at the Olympics in Tokyo was made of cardboard? Dr. Darren Tan, a senior physics curriculum specialist, guides us through the science of cardboard and other supermaterials.

Dr. Darren Tan, Senior Curriculum Specialist (Physics), Ministry of Education

When was the last time you came across cardboard? Can you get your hands on the cardboard right now? Have you ever wondered about the cardboard used for shipping packaging? What is cardboard? How is this done? Why did you make a cardboard bed at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo?

If you, like me, had ever cut your fingers on cardboard in your haste with unpacking, you would have realized that cardboard – like paper – is capable of making cuts to paper!

And what is paper? Paper is basically a crossed matrix of plant fibers compressed and glued together into a thin sheet. (You can easily search the Internet for beautiful images of paper viewed under a microscope.)

Cardboard is essentially a super paper

Cardboard is usually thicker than paper, which makes it stiffer. But in fact it is much stronger than paper because it has a characteristic layer of corrugation. Adding corrugation turns cardboard into a supermaterial made of paper. (There are fascinating videos on YouTube that show the efficient process of making cardboard in large modern factories. Check them out!)

To understand how corrugation enhances structural stability, consider this simple demonstration. A flat sheet of paper is “disc” and easily bends and bursts like a flag in the wind. But the introduction of a fold in the paper along its entire length changes its geometry and prevents bending in the perpendicular direction.

Take a couple of Singapore dollar bills (which are made of plastic, not paper, but still illustrate the point – it just replaces polymer chains with plant fibers). But the curved note creates a stiffer structure that can now withstand the weight. The column can more effectively resist folding in different directions.

Can you create cardboard furniture?

At this point you may be wondering how a cardboard bed can withstand the weight of an Olympic athlete. A dollar bill can support some weight, but not much. And if you were sitting on an empty cardboard box, it would probably just fall apart (so please imagine this and don’t get hurt trying to do it).

In design and engineering it all depends on strategy. If you try to sit on top of an empty cardboard box, the only supporting structure will be the four vertical sides of the box, which are quite far apart, and therefore great forces will cause the sides to bend inward, which will drop an inch. To make a cardboard stool possible, try opening all the sash first and then folding the cardboard tightly. This compact cylindrical design would be able to withstand your weight, as the weight will be distributed over many layers of cardboard.

Want a cardboard bed?

Tokyo 2020 is the first Olympics to achieve carbon neutrality and work entirely on renewable energy sources. All athletes at the 2020 Olympics would have noticed some of these sustainability efforts, including personalized beds with recyclable frames made entirely of cardboard.

“Cardboard is just one example of super-materials invented by humans … We must strive to use our human ingenuity to make the best use of the resources available on Earth.”

This does not mean that you have to replace your current bed with a cardboard one unless your current bed is in good condition. If you have a solid bed made of traditional materials (such as wood) that you use throughout your life and even pass it on to your children, it is probably also very sustainable.

But in the context of the Olympics it is a mega-event with a large number of people flocking to a temporary venue, creating a huge surge in demand that only needs to be met in this short period. After that, the beds may no longer be needed, cardboard or not.

What can we learn from our research in cardboard? Well, cardboard is just one example of supermaterials invented by humans. You can explore the links below to learn about interesting ways to apply folding and cutting in cutting-edge research.

We must strive to use our human ingenuity and understanding of scientific principles to make the best use of the resources we have on Earth and leave a sustainable planet for future generations.

If you really like cardboard, read on

Manipulating the geometry of structures by assembling and cutting lies at the intersection of art and science. Read more at the following links:

Here are some links to hands-on activities you can try in the comfort of your own home. Nothing is better to do it yourself so you can experiment, observe and gain an intuitive understanding of the interaction between material properties and design geometry!

Finally, check it out Carpenter on paper. It is a cardboard design agency in Singapore that produces a wide selection of cardboard furniture, and stands behind Singapore’s Changi Airport record in 2018 for its largest cardboard landscape.

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