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Computer chips morph into tiny robots with medical applications
Tech

Scientists create a microscopic robot that ‘walks’

2 Mins read

A team of Cornell University scientists developed a new robot — so small that it’s invisible to the naked eye — that they hope will someday crawl around inside the human body and hunt for diseases.

The robot’s circuit is made with silicon solar cells for its body and head, and electrochemical actuators are attached to function as legs. When laser light is flashed on the cells while switching the laser back and forth between the front and back cells, the robot walks.

“Controlling a tiny robot is maybe as close as you can come to shrinking yourself down. I think machines like these are going to take us into all kinds of amazing worlds that are too small to see,”

Marc Miskin, the study’s lead author said.

The robot’s circuit is made with silicon solar cell for its body and head, and electrochemical actuators are attached to function as legs. The solar cell converts light into electricity, and the electrochemical actuators convert electrical energy into mechanical energy, the paper noted.

When laser light is flashed on the cells while switching the laser back and forth between the front and back cells, the robot walks, it explained.

“The innovations that we made to make them compatible with standard microchip fabrication open the door to making these microscopic robots smart, fast and mass producible,” Itai Cohen, Professor of Physics at Cornell University said.

The researchers said that “creating the legs was an enormous feat,” as the legs did not exist before. The team constructed the legs from strips of platinum only a few dozen atoms thick, capped on one side by a thin layer of inert titanium.

“There were no small, electrically activatable actuators that you could use. So, we had to invent those and then combine them with the electronics,” Paul McEuen, Professor of Physical Science at Cornell University said.

These robots operate with low voltage (200 millivolts) and low power (10 nanowatts) and are about 5 microns thick (a micron is one-millionth of a meter), 40 microns wide, and range from 40 to 70 microns in length, as a result, “about 1 million bots fit on a 4-inch silicon wafer,” according to the paper.

Itai Cohen, professor of physics in the College of Arts & Sciences, speaks about cross-disciplinary research between groups in physics in the College of Arts & Sciences and groups in the College of Engineering.

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