Scientists have developed a new robot the size of a molecule that can be ‘programmed’ to build other molecules.
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We have seen robots that can inspect bridges for faults, offer religious blessings and even weed the garden. Now, scientists at England’s University of Manchester have created a robot the size of a molecule that is capable of building other molecules. The robots are made up of 150 atoms each and measure just a millionth of a millimeter – it would take a billion billion of them to equal the size of a grain of sand. Yet, they can be programmed to move and build molecular cargo. Unlike their larger cousins, which are operated by computer programs, the molecular robots are constructed and operated using chemical processes. Using special solutions, the robots can be ‘programmed’ to carry out different chemical reactions allowing the building of different molecules.
Professor David Leigh, who led the research at the university’s School of Chemistry, explains: ‘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. 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’.
Leigh and his team anticipate that within 20 years, it may be possible for molecular robots to build new materials, molecule by molecule on ‘assembly lines’ in molecular factories. Using molecules for construction can substantially reduce the amount of power and materials needed to create new drugs, plastics and other products. Building in molecular scale may also in the future allow for much more rapid miniaturisation of electronics and other devices. What other uses might there be for robots the size of a molecule?