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These Microscopic Robots Could Change Science as We Know It

A genius mashup of the minds at Cornell has developed the first microscopic robots that could change the game in the field of science.  So minuscule that they are practically parasitic, these microscopic robots are about 5 microns thick (a micron is one-millionth of a meter), 40 microns wide and range from 40 to 70 microns in length.  Given their microorganism-like size, these nanorobots are building the foundation for more advanced and complex types that can be mass-produced – and may be capable of navigating through human tissue and blood.

This mini robotic exploration with endless possibilities is spearheaded by Itai Cohen, professor of physics, Paul McEuen, the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science (both in the College of Arts and Sciences) as well as their former postdoctoral researcher Marc Miskin, who’s currently an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

The walking robots are the latest installment and really the “evolution” of the brainy duo, Cohen and McEuen’s earlier nanoscale creation – that ranged from microscopic sensors to graphene-based origami machines.

The microscopic robots are made up of a simple circuit made from silicon photovoltaics, which in essence, function as the torso and brain. Plus, there are four electrochemical actuators that function as legs. While to the naked eye, these mini bots may appear to be basic, the development of the legs was a monumental accomplishment.

Previously, the legs did not exist as there was a void of having small, electrical actuators that you could activate and use. So, the Cornell ‘collab’ invented them out of super-thin strips of platinum capped on one side by a thin layer of inert titanium. With the help of atomic layer deposition and lithography, they combined them with electronics. The robots can be controlled by flashing laser pulses at different photovoltaics. Every pulse charges a separate set of legs. The microscopic robot walks by switching the laser back and forth between the front and back photovoltaics.

While these robots may seem “primitive,” they are actually high-tech yet operate with low voltage (200 millivolts) and low power (10 nanowatts), which is robust given their size.

The goal is to explore ways to enhance these microscopic bots by equipping them with more advanced electronics and onboard computation. According to these researchers, these enhancements have the potential to become herds of microscopic robots “crawling through and restructuring materials, or suturing blood vessels, or being dispatched en masse to probe large swaths of the human brain.”

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