UK scientists develop world’s first molecular robot

Posted on 3 Oct 2017 by Michael Cruickshank

A team of UK scientists has become the first in the world to build a functional robot able to work at a molecular scale.

An artist's impression of the robot manipulating a molecule. Image courtesy of the University of Manchester.
An artist’s impression of the robot manipulating a molecule. Image courtesy of the University of Manchester.

The team from the University of Manchester managed to build the minuscule robot which measures in at just a millionth of a millimeter.

In spite of its small size, it is able to still carry out a useful function, using robotic arms to build and arrange other molecules.

The robots themselves are made out of just 150 carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, some of the most abundant elements on Earth.

While traditional, digital robots are programmed using electrical impulses and powered through mechanical energy, these molecular robots, or ‘nanobots’, are instead programmed using chemical reactions.

The robots sit in a special solution, to which certain chemicals are applied, which then induces movement or specific actions within the robot.

“All matter is made up of atoms and these are the basic building blocks that form molecules. Our robot is literally a molecular robot constructed of atoms just like you can build a very simple robot out of Lego bricks,” explains Professor David Leigh from the University of Manchester’s School of Chemistry.

“The robot then responds to a series of simple commands that are programmed with chemical inputs by a scientist.”

Despite the tech being at an early state, nanobots like those produced by the University of Manchester could revolutionize manufacturing into the future.

By enabling objects to be assembled at a molecular scale, objects would be produced with almost zero waste, and with unprecedented levels of detail.

In the more near future, however, these current robots able to precisely assemble other molecules could be quite useful for the pharmaceutical industry.

Through the rapid assembly of new molecules, scientists and researchers would more easily and more readily be able to develop new and exotic drugs.

“Molecular robotics represents the ultimate in the miniaturization of machinery. 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,” said Prof. Leigh.