A robot mere molecules long is helping engineers create new nanotechnology one bit at a time.
A team from the University of Manchester has created a ‘molecular robot’ capable of performing basic tasks including building other molecules and pieces of nanotechnology.
The tiny robot, which is a millionth of a millimetre in size, can be programmed to move and build molecular cargo using a tiny robotic arm.
Each individual robot is capable of manipulating a single molecule and is made up of just 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms. It operates by carrying out chemical reactions in special solutions that can then be controlled and programmed by scientists to perform the basic tasks.
“Our robot is literally a molecular robot constructed of atoms just like you can build a very simple robot out of Lego bricks,” said Chemistry Professor David Leigh.
“The robot then responds to a series of simple commands that are programmed with chemical inputs by a scientist. It is similar to the way robots are used on a car assembly line. Those robots pick up a panel and position it so that it can be riveted in the correct way to build the bodywork of a car.
“So, just like the robot in the factory, our molecular version can be programmed to position and rivet components in different ways to build different products, just on a much smaller scale.”
He said the benefit of having machinery that is so small is it massively reduces demand for materials, can accelerate and improve drug discovery, dramatically reduce power requirements and rapidly increase the miniaturisation of other products. Therefore, the potential applications for molecular robots are varied and exciting.
“Molecular robotics represents the ultimate in the miniaturisation of machinery,” he said.
“Our aim is to design and make the smallest machines possible. This is just the start but we anticipate that within 10 to 20 years molecular robots will begin to be used to build molecules and materials on assembly lines in molecular factories.”