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Scientists create world’s first ‘molecular robot’ capable of building molecules

Image credit: Stuart Jantzen,

Scientists at The University of Manchester have created the world’s first ‘molecular robot’ that is capable of performing basic tasks including building other molecules. The tiny robots, which are a millionth of a millimetre in size, can be programmed to move and build molecular cargo, using a tiny robotic arm.

Each individual robot is capable of manipulating a single molecule and is made up of just 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms. To put that size into context, a billion billion of these robots piled on top of each other would still only be the same size as a single grain of salt. The robots operate by carrying out chemical reactions in special solutions which can then be controlled and programmed by scientists to perform the basic tasks.

In the future such robots could be used for medical purposes, advanced manufacturing processes and even building molecular factories and assembly lines. The research will be published in Nature on Thursday 21st September.

Professor David Leigh, who led the research at University’s School of Chemistry, explains: ‘All matter is made up of atoms and these are the basic building blocks that form molecules. Our robot is literally a molecular robot constructed of atoms just like you can build a very simple robot out of Lego bricks. The robot then responds to a series of simple commands that are programmed with chemical inputs by a scientist.

‘It is similar to the way robots are used on a car assembly line. Those robots pick up a panel and position it so that it can be riveted in the correct way to build the bodywork of a car. So, just like the robot in the factory, our molecular version can be programmed to position and rivet components in different ways to build different products, just on a much smaller scale at a molecular level.’

The benefit of having machinery that is so small is it massively reduces demand for materials, can accelerate and improve drug discovery, dramatically reduce power requirements and rapidly increase the miniaturisation of other products. Therefore, the potential applications for molecular robots are extremely varied and exciting.

Prof Leigh says: ‘Molecular robotics represents the ultimate in the miniaturisation of machinery. Our aim is to design and make the smallest machines possible. This is just the start but we anticipate that within 10 to 20 years molecular robots will begin to be used to build molecules and materials on assembly lines in molecular factories.’

Whilst building and operating such tiny machine is extremely complex, the techniques used by the team are based on simple chemical processes.

Prof Leigh added: ‘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.’


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  1. Min Namn says

    I welcome the new math from the article:
    “The tiny robots, which are a millionth of a millimetre in size, …”
    together with
    “…a billion billion of these robots piled on top of each other would still only be the same size as a single grain of salt”
    gives us some interesting grains of salt, with a diametre of [ (billion billion) / million / 1000 ] = 1 million kilometres, or million million kilometres, depending on whether the article uses “short” or “long scale” definition of the billion.

    1. skid says

      You’re thinking in one dimension. Try three.

    2. Abe says

      “a millionth of a millimeter in size” specifies only one dimension of a volumetric (3D) object. Talking about how many of said object can fit in a given volume is not quite as straightforward as you seem to believe. A millionth of a millimeter is a nanometer. Let’s assume a grain of sand is 1 millimeter by 1 millimeter by 1 millimeter (1 cubic millimeter). Another way of saying that is 1 million nanometers by 1 million nanometers by 1 million nanometers which is 10^18 cubic nanometers. One billion is 10^9 so 10^18 is “a billion billion”.

      Another way to put this is: Do you really think there are only 1000 cubic millimeters in a cubic meter? ‘Cuz that’s what your math implies…

    3. asgerix says

      Actually, I think the math is okay. Assume a grain of sand is a cube with sides of one millimetre, and the robot is a cube with sides of a millionth of a millimetre, then a grain of sand can contain (10^6)^3 = 10^18 robots, which is a billion billion.

  2. John Lock says

    News are such a junk these days. The way is presented… it is all propaganda. Take this one for instance, it is a cut and paste scientific utopia. A good analogy is to release a magnet on a ramp, this magnet will “pick” other magnets along the ramp and in the end of this ramp they will have 4 magnets, instead of one. And this is the “machine” they’ve build. Nah… such a biased way to put out news. You all should be ashamed.

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