MIT Researchers Create Cell-Sized Robots Can Sense Their Environment

Wednesday, July 25, 2018 - 09:39

Researchers of Massachusetts Institute of Technology could create the smallest robots that can sense their environment, store data, and even carry out computational tasks.

The device, about the size of a human egg cell, consists 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.

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.

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.

The research team, all at MIT, included Pingwei Liu, Daichi Kozawa, Albert Liu, Anton Cottrill, Youngwoo Son, and Jose Lebron. The work was supported by the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the Swiss National Science Foundation.

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