For years science fiction writers have described a future where tiny robots are able to move about in the human body, administering treatments on a molecular level. Now that future is on the edge of reality with the development of the world’s first ‘molecular robot’: a micrometre-sized bot capable of building molecules.
Each robot is a millionth of a millimetre in size and is made up of just 150 hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and carbon atoms: in order to match the size of a grain of salt, you would need to pile a billion billion of the robots on top of each other.
Each can be programmed chemically to perform basic tasks such as constructing molecules out of component atoms, meaning that in the future they could be used to aid medical treatments, or work in tiny molecular factories creating molecules for a host of industries.
“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,” said research leader Professor David Leigh, from the University of Manchester’s School of Chemistry. “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 at a molecular level.”
While regular sized robots are programmed using commands imputed through a computer, these robots are instructed using chemicals.
“The robots are assembled and operated using chemistry. This is the science of how atoms and molecules react with each other and how larger molecules are constructed from smaller ones,” explained Leigh.
“It is the same sort of process scientists use to make medicines and plastics from simple chemical building blocks. Then, once the nano-robots have been constructed, they are operated by scientists by adding chemical inputs which tell the robots what to do and when, just like a computer program.”
While the research is at an early stage, the robots could in the future be used to work in tiny factories, which could – for example – reduce demand for materials, speed up drug discovery and dramatically cut power requirements.
“Molecular robotics represents the ultimate in the miniaturisation of machinery. Our aim is to design and make the smallest machines possible,” said Leigh.
“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 research will be published in Nature on Thursday.