Extremely tiny robots, about a millionth of a millimeter in size, that are capable of performing basic tasks including building molecules have been developed.
The robots, which scientists at the University of Manchester call the world’s first molecular robots, can be programmed to move and build molecular cargo using a tiny robotic arm. Each robot is made up of just 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms, so small that if you put a billion of these robots piled on top of each other they would be the same size as a single grain of salt.
The robots operate by carrying out chemical reactions in special solutions allowing them to be controlled and programmed by scientists to perform certain basic tasks. These robots could be used for medical purposes, advanced manufacturing processes and even building molecular factories and assembly lines in the future.
“All matter is made up of atoms and these are the basic building blocks that form molecules,” says David Leigh, professor at the University of Manchester’s School of Chemistry. “Our robot is literally a molecular robot constructed of atoms just like you can build a very simple robot out of Lego bricks. The robot then responds to a series of simple commands that are programmed with chemical inputs by a scientist.”
Leigh says the robots work in the same way as those on a car assembly line picking up different parts and positioning them to build a final product, but on a molecular level.
Because the robots are so tiny, it massively reduces demand for materials, accelerates and improves drug discovery, reduces power requirements and increases the miniaturization of other products, researchers say.
“Molecular robotics represents the ultimate in the miniaturization of machinery,” Leigh says. “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.”
The robots are assembled and operated using chemistry—how atoms and molecules react with each other and how larger molecules are constructed from smaller ones, Leigh says. Once the nano robots are constructed, scientists add chemical inputs telling the robots what to do and when, just like a computer program.