Lasers could help fire weapons or set off explosive warheads for the U.S. Army in the near future. That possibility comes from a lab demonstration of how a simple, handheld laser can fold tiny metallic structures in a style that mimics Japanese origami.

The demonstration suggests that similar systems could produce tiny grippers and switches that would act as mechanical components in small devices. The components could be used to detonate explosive or propellant material, attach identification transponder tags to clothing, or even enable a new generation of extremely tiny robots or electronic devices.

“We are enabling true microsystems, where all of the energy and functions are self-contained in a millimeter- or smaller-sized package,” said Christopher Morris, a researcher focused on micro-materials and devices at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

Army researchers became interested in the concept after seeing work that Johns Hopkins University had done in making micro devices for performing surgery. But the Army took the method a step farther by creating millimeter-sized structures that could be triggered by low-power lasers or even LED lighting.

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