Researchers at MIT have created what may be the smallest robots yet that can sense their environment, store data, and even carry out computational tasks. These devices, which are about the size of a human egg cell, consist of tiny electronic circuits made of two-dimensional materials, piggybacking on minuscule particles called colloids.
Colloids, which insoluble particles or molecules anywhere from a billionth to a millionth of a meter across, are so small they can stay suspended indefinitely in a liquid or even in air. By coupling these tiny objects to complex circuitry, the researchers hope to lay the groundwork for devices that could be dispersed to carry out diagnostic journeys through anything from the human digestive system to oil and gas pipelines, or perhaps to waft through air to measure compounds inside a chemical processor or refinery.
“We wanted to figure out methods to graft complete, intact electronic circuits onto colloidal particles,” explains Michael Strano, the Carbon C. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and senior author of the study, which was published today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. MIT postdoc Volodymyr Koman is the paper’s lead author.
“Colloids can access environments and travel in ways that other materials can’t,” Strano says. Dust particles, for example, can float indefinitely in the air because they are small enough that the random motions imparted by colliding air molecules are stronger than the pull of gravity. Similarly, colloids suspended in liquid will never settle out.
Strano says that while other groups have worked on the creation of similarly tiny robotic devices, their emphasis has been on developing ways to control movement, for example by replicating the tail-like flagellae that some microbial organisms use to propel themselves. But Strano suggests that may not be the most fruitful approach, since flagellae and other cellular movement systems are primarily used for local-scale positioning, rather than for significant movement. For most purposes, making such devices more functional is more important than making them mobile, he says.
Tiny robots made by the MIT team are self-powered, requiring no external power source or even internal batteries. A simple photodiode provides the trickle of electricity that the tiny robots’ circuits require to power their computation and memory circuits. That’s enough to let them sense information about their environment, store those data in their memory, and then later have the data read out after accomplishing their mission.
Such devices could ultimately be a boon for the oil and gas industry, Strano says. Currently, the main way of checking for leaks or other issues in pipelines is to have a crew physically drive along the pipe and inspect it with expensive instruments. In principle, the new devices could be inserted into one end of the pipeline, carried along with the flow, and then removed at the other end, providing a record of the conditions they encountered along the way, including the presence of contaminants that could indicate the location of problem areas. The initial proof-of-concept devices didn’t have a timing circuit that would indicate the location of particular data readings, but adding that is part of ongoing work.
Similarly, such particles could potentially be used for diagnostic purposes in the body, for example to pass through the digestive tract searching for signs of inflammation or other disease indicators, the researchers say.
Most conventional microchips, such as silicon-based or CMOS, have a flat, rigid substrate and would not perform properly when attached to colloids that can experience complex mechanical stresses while travelling through the environment. In addition, all such chips are “very energy-thirsty,” Strano says. That’s why Koman decided to try out two-dimensional electronic materials, including graphene and transition-metal dichalcogenides, which he found could be attached to colloid surfaces, remaining operational even after after being launched into air or water. And such thin-film electronics require only tiny amounts of energy. “They can be powered by nanowatts with subvolt voltages,” Koman says.
Why not just use the 2-D electronics alone? Without some substrate to carry them, these tiny materials are too fragile to hold together and function. “They can’t exist without a substrate,” Strano says. “We need to graft them to the particles to give them mechanical rigidity and to make them large enough to get entrained in the flow.”
But the 2-D materials “are strong enough, robust enough to maintain their functionality even on unconventional substrates” such as the colloids, Koman says.
The nanodevices they produced with this method are autonomous particles that contain electronics for power generation, computation, logic, and memory storage. They are powered by light and contain tiny retroreflectors that allow them to be easily located after their travels. They can then be interrogated through probes to deliver their data. In ongoing work, the team hopes to add communications capabilities to allow the particles to deliver their data without the need for physical contact.
Other efforts at nanoscale robotics “haven’t reached that level” of creating complex electronics that are sufficiently small and energy efficient to be aerosolized or suspended in a colloidal liquid. These are “very smart particles, by current standards,” Strano says, adding, “We see this paper as the introduction of a new field” in robotics.
Learn more: Cell-sized robots can sense their environment
The Latest on: Cell sized robots
via Google News
The Latest on: Cell sized robots
- Engineers develop novel miniaturised organic semiconductoron October 8, 2020 at 7:48 am
An engineering team has made an important breakthrough in developing the staggered structure monolayer Organic Field Effect Transistors, which sets a major cornerstone to reduce the size of OFETs.
- Orthopedic Devices Market Size Worth Around US$ 56.23 by 2027on October 6, 2020 at 7:00 am
Published Report on "Orthopedic Devices Market Size, Share, Growth, Trends, Segmentation, Regional Outlook and Forecast 2020 - 2027". OTTAWA, ...
- Combining AI and Nanotechnology to Create Robot-Assisted Molecular Manipulationon October 5, 2020 at 5:15 am
A team of scientists from Forschungszentrum Jülich and TU Berlin is working on a project to create an autonomous artificial intelligence system with the ability to pick up and move individual ...
- Sanitizing Butlers, UV Robots, Disinfection Rooms: ‘Covid Cleaning’ Solutions Are The Latest Luxury Amenitieson September 30, 2020 at 6:23 pm
Covid prevention has risen to the top of the luxury perks. Sanitizing butlers and light-wielding robots are just the beginning.
- How AI will revolutionize manufacturingon September 29, 2020 at 11:46 am
Ask Stefan Jockusch what a factory might look like in 10 or 20 years, and the answer might leave you at a crossroads between fascination and bewilderment. Jockusch is vice president for strategy at ...
- Cobots and the Rise of Lean Integratorson September 29, 2020 at 7:08 am
New technologies are known for changing how we do things as a society or industry. The increasing popularity of collaborative robots appears to be changing how system integrators are structured ...
- Robots and magnetic soap: scientists rethink oil spill clean-upson September 29, 2020 at 1:01 am
Incidents such as tanker stranding in Mauritius stress need for quick and effective solutions ...
- Lithium Battery Charger Ics Market Overview and scope, Industry Outlook, Size & Forecast 2020-2026on September 28, 2020 at 5:53 am
The capabilities of smart technology have paved the way for the adoption of portable and wearable electronic devices.
- Global Robot Software Market Size, Industry Trends, Share and Forecast 2020-2026on September 27, 2020 at 11:56 pm
The robot software market is anticipated to grow with a significant CAGR during the forecast period In recent years robot simulation software is becoming a major part of the integration process for ...
via Bing News