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Microbots form and flex like human muscles

11 Nov 2014

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If you've watched Disney's new animated feature Big Hero 6 and think that lead character Hiro Hamada's invention—the Microbots—is just a fictional contraption, then you're underestimating our robotics engineers.

In a step towards robots smaller than a grain of sand, University of Michigan researchers have shown how chains of self-assembling particles could serve as electrically activated muscles in the tiny machines.

Microbot muscle

These so-called microbots would be handy in many areas, particularly medicine and manufacturing. Last year, researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong developed microrobots as small as human cells (100µ long x 40µ wide), which are intended to carry drugs accurately into targeted parts of the body. These small machines can be inserted into the human body without leaving a wound, thus eliminating the need for risky surgeries.

However, several challenges lie between current technologies and science fiction possibilities. Two of the big ones are building the 'bots and making them mobile.

"We are inspired by ideas of microscopic robots," said Michael Solomon, a professor of chemical engineering. "They could work together and go places that have never been possible before."

Solomon and his group demonstrated that some gold plating and an alternating electric field can help oblong particles form chains that extend by roughly 36 per cent when the electric field is on.

"What's really important in the field of nanotechnology right now is not just assembling into structures, but assembling into structures that can change or shape-shift," said Sharon Glotzer, the Stuart W. Churchill Professor of Chemical Engineering, whose team developed computer simulations that helped explain how the chains grew and operated.

The innovation that led to the shape-shifting, said Aayush Shah, a doctoral student in Solomon's group, is the addition of the electric field to control the behaviour of the particles.

"The particles are like children in a playground," Shah said. "They do interesting things on their own, but it takes a headmaster to make them do interesting things together."

The team started with particles similar to those found in paint, with diameters of about a hundredth the width of a strand of hair. They stretched these particles into football shapes and coated one side of each football with gold. The gilded halves attracted one another in slightly salty water—ideally about half the salt concentration in the sports drink Powerade. The more salt in the water, the stronger the attraction.


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