World’s first ‘molecular robot’ can build molecules

An artistic rendering imagines a robotic arm manipulating a molecule. Photo by University of Manchester

Sept. 21 (UPI) — Scientists have constructed a robot capable of building molecules — the world’s first “molecular robot.” The nanoscale robots can use a tiny robotic arm to move and build molecules.

The molecular robot works by triggering chemical reactions in specially designed solutions. Eventually, the robot could carry out medical missions or work on chemical assembly lines.

“Our robot is literally a molecular robot constructed of atoms just like you can build a very simple robot out of Lego bricks,” David Leigh, a professor of chemistry at the University of Manchester in England, said in a news release. “The robot then responds to a series of simple commands that are programmed with chemical inputs by a scientist.”

Leigh likens the robot’s production methods to a machine on an automobile assembly line, picking up a panel and riveting it into place.

“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,” Leigh said.

One of the benefits of the new robot is its size. The molecular robot can help reduce material waste in various production processes. Researchers say it could also help speed up the drug discovery process. Smaller robots can also operate with improve energy efficiency and build smaller products.

Researchers described their breakthrough robot this week in the journal Nature.

“Our aim is to design and make the smallest machines possible,” Leigh said. “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.”

Though the construction process is complex, the molecular robot is built the same way it builds new molecules, through a series of precisely controlled chemical reactions and the steady assemblage of atoms and smaller molecules into bigger molecules.

“It is the same sort of process scientists use to make medicines and plastics from simple chemical building blocks,” Leigh said. “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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