The molecular robot is capable of combining individual molecules, meaning it may soon be possible to build new drugs and materials like a Lego castle.
The world’s first molecular robot is made up of just 150 atoms, making it a billion times smaller than a grain of salt. What it’s capable of doing is even more impressive: Equipped with an arm, it can move individual molecules and combine them into bigger ones. This would make it possible to manufacture new kinds of materials and machines.
“It is similar to the way robots are used on a car assembly line”, explains Professor David Leigh, who led the research. But instead of picking up panels and moving them into the correct position so they can be welded into the bodywork of a car, the nano-arms combine molecules, which in turn are made up of multiple atoms. The molecular robots are controlled by adding chemicals into the solution in which they are contained. This causes a number of chemical reactions, making the molecules in the arm and in the building material attract or repel one another.
Nanofactories for Molecular Robots
Scientists use similar chemical processes in the production of drugs and plastics made from chemical components. But the molecular robot is much more accurate in comparison, thereby reducing consumption of raw materials and energy. This helps to cut production costs while also accelerating the development of new materials.
As the nano-arm represents the ultimate in the miniaturization of machinery, it opens up new possibilities in the production of goods. “Within 10 to 20 years, molecular robots will begin to be used to build molecules and materials on assembly lines in molecular factories”, predicts Leigh. To make that a reality, he and his colleagues want to shrink even more forms of technology to a molecular level – which is why he says nano-robots are just the start: “Our aim is to design and make the smallest machines possible”.