Tiniest machine ever made heralds new chapter in nanorobotics

The tiniest machine ever made – only a few billionths of a metre in diameter – heralds a new chapter in nanorobotics, says a team of scientists from the University of Bath and University of Cambridge, both in England. Experts say that nanorobotics has the potential to dramatically transform virtually every industry across the globe.

The microscopic machine is called ANT, which stands for Actuating Nano-Transducer. It is less than one millionth of the size of the average ant we see in our gardens. Its creators say the future applications in nanorobotics are virtually endless, and will be of interest to people working in space exploration, electronics, oil & gas, military defence, biotech, and hundreds of other fields.

The minuscule machine is powered by light, Dr. Tao Ding, who works at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, and colleagues explained in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, often referred to as PNAS (citation below).

ANT is smallest machine ever made nanoroboticsThe ANT – Actuating Nano-Transducer – is the world’s smallest machine. (Image: cam.ac.uk. Image Credit: Yi Ju)

ANT will probably form the basis for future *nano-machines that can travel through water and sense their surrounding environment.

* The prefix ‘nano’, when used in science, refers to ultra-small units. In the names of units it generally means 10-9, or one-billionth.

Nanorobotics (can be written ‘nano-robotics’) – or nanomites, nanomachines and nanobots – has several potential applications, including space travel, 3-D printing, nanophotonics to create light more efficiently, military defence, replacing worn-out parts, and the creation of ultra-small computer circuits for the production of minuscule chips and processors.

Several countries’ defence departments, such as those in the UK, France, USA, Russia, Germany, Canada and Japan, are currently researching into using nanotechnology for use in military applications, including unmanned droned air surveillance. They could also could be used as an improved body armour that is able to self-repair if damaged.

Consisting of tiny gold particles

This ultra-small machine is made of tiny particles of gold that are bound together with polymers that are temperature sensitive, in the form of a gel.

Nanorobots are super smallSince nanorobots are microscopic in size – only billionths of a metre long – it will be necessary to use many of them working together to perform tasks. These ‘nanorobot swarms’ are commonly mentioned in science-fiction stories, where they can create giant machines and even whole cities, such as the Borg nanoprobes in the famous series Star Trek, or the Replicators in Stargate. (Image: hovo-nanotechnology.blogspot)

When the nano-engine is heated to a specific temperature, it stores massive amounts of elastic energy in a fraction of a second, as the polymer coatings expel all the water from the gel, which then collapses.

When all the water is gone, the gold particles are effectively forced to bind together in tight clusters.

However, when the temperature drops and the device cools down, the polymers take in water and expand at incredible speed, and the gold nanoparticles are rapidly and strongly pushed apart, like a coil.

First Author, Dr. Ding, said regarding the sudden expansion of the machine when it cools:

“It’s like an explosion. We have hundreds of gold balls flying apart in a millionth of a second when water molecules inflate the polymers around them.”

Powered by photons

Co-author Dr. Ventsislav Valev, a Research Fellow of the Royal Society and a Reader at the University of Bath, said:

“We know that light can heat up water to power steam engines. But now we can use light to power a piston engine at the nanoscale.”

Major Tim Peake reparing ISSAstronauts have to go outside the International Space Station to carry out repairs. Scientists say that one day swarms of nanorobots will be doing this. (Image: esa.int)

Nano-machines, which can enter virtually any kind of environment and carry out essential work, are the dreams of researchers and lay people alike.

Making ultra-small machines is not that difficult, the really hard part is getting them to move effectively on their own – until now, this challenge has kept nanorobots in the realm of sci-fi.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge say they developed an astonishingly simple method to get the tiny machines to move around incredibly fast and exert large forces.

This microscopic device can exert a force several times more powerful than anything created before. It has a force per unit weight approaching one-hundred times greater than any motor.

The authors say that ANT is cost-effective to produce, energy efficient, bio-compatible, and extremely fast to respond.

Actuating Nano-Transducers – ANTs

Study leader, Jeremy Baumberg, Professor of Nanophotonics, Director of the Nanophotonics Centre, Fellow of Jesus College at the University of Cambridge, came up with the name ‘ANT’, or actuating nano-transducer.

Regarding the machine’s ant-like quality, Prof. Baumberg said:

“Like real ants, they produce large forces for their weight. The challenge we now face is how to control that force for nano-machinery applications.”

In the journal, the authors suggest how to turn the attraction of molecules and atoms – Van de Walls energy – into elastic energy of polymers, which can be released instantly.

Prof. Baumberg said:

“The whole process is like a nano-spring. The smart part here is we make use of Van de Waals attraction of heavy metal particles to set the springs (polymers) and water molecules to release them, which is very reversible and reproducible.”

In an Abstract in the journal, the authors wrote:

“It is optically powered (although other modes are also possible), and potentially offers unusually large force/mass. This looks to be widely generalizable, because the actuating nanotransducers can be selectively bound to designated active sites.”

“The concept can underpin a plethora of future designs and already we produce a dramatic optical response over large areas at high speed.”

The scientists are now working with Cambridge Enterprise – the university’s commercialisation arm – and a number of other businesses to see how this technology might be exploited commercially.

The research was finance by the European Research Council and the UK Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council.

What is a nanorobot? According to whatis.techtarget.com:

“A nanorobot is a tiny machine designed to perform a specific task or tasks repeatedly and with precision at nanoscale dimensions, that is, dimensions of a few nanometers (nm) or less, where 1 nm = 10-9 meter.”

Nanorobots can function at the molecular or atomic level to build circuits, machines and devices – this process is called molecular manufacturing.

Engineers say that nanorobots will eventually be able to produce copies of themselves to replace units that have become worn out – this process is known as self-replication.

Citation: Light-induced actuating nanotransducers,” Chris J. Forman, Stoyan K. Smoukov, Oren A. Scherman, Andrew R. Salmon, Tao Ding, Ventsislav K. Valev, Daan Frenkel, and Jeremy J. Baumberg. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). 2nd May 2016. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1524209113.

Video – The nanotech arms race

Defence departments across the world are engaged in a nanotech arms race, whoever wins will be virtually unbeatable in any non-nuclear battle.

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