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We’ve heard the promise of the arrival of autonomous nanobots—teeny tiny machines capable of completing medical tasks too small for humans to execute—for years, yet this buzz-worthy tech continues to elude the grasp of mainstream medicine.
At long last, a team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Pittsburg have succeeded in engineering microscopic robots that can seek out and repair cracked circuitry. They published their findings in the science journal Nano Letters.
“Such a nanomotor-based repair system represents an important step toward the realization of biomimetic nano systems that can autonomously sense and respond to environmental changes,” the authors wrote. While they applied their tiny robots to the repair of electrical systems, the researchers hope that the development of efficient autonomous nanobots can one day be applied for biological purposes such as targeted drug delivery.
The team actually looked to the body’s own natural blood-clotting capabilities to inform their research. For example, when you cut yourself, platelets in your bloodstream rush to the site of injury and clump together to prevent further bleeding. By using “Janus particles”—nanoparticles made up of two distinct hemispheres with different chemical properties—they aimed to recreate a similar clotting process.
The Janus particles—called “nanomotors” by the researchers—were composed of equal parts gold and platinum. When dropped into a solution of hydrogen peroxide, the platinum half of the particles reacted by releasing a steady stream of oxygen, propelling the particles forward like tiny rocket ships.
The gold half of the nanomotors could then “sense” scratches on various surfaces based on differences in surface energies. Once they are driven to the site of these scratches, they pour into the “wells,” becoming trapped in the shape of the crevice and eventually filling it up.
To test their system, the team built a rudimentary circuit and broke it with a scratch only one-tenth the width of a human hair. After having immersed the circuit in the hydrogen peroxide solution for 30 minutes, they discovered that the nanobots had sensed and clotted the scratch entirely, restoring the circuit’s functionality.
The researchers are now seeking alternative applications for their chemically-powered micro-bots, be it for self-healing electronics or medical aid.