This week in science: Breakthroughs in robotics

This week in science is a review of the most interesting scientific news of the past week.

Artistic impression of a molecular robot. Credit: Stuart Jantzen and biocinematics.com.

A molecular robot that can build other molecules

The world's first molecular robot capable of building other molecules, besides performing other tasks, was announced by scientists from The University of Manchester in a paper published in the scientific magazine, Nature, last Thursday. Each robot is made up of just 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms and is just a millionth of a millimeter in size.

In order to perform their basic tasks, the robots are programmed and controlled by the scientists through chemical reactions in special solutions. According to Professor David Leigh, leader of the project:

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.

Professor Leigh and his team expect that within 10 to 20 years molecular robots will be widely used to build molecules and materials on assembly lines in molecular factories. If so, this next industrial revolution would reduce consumption of materials and energy, while also possibly accelerating and improving drug discovery.

Source: Phys.org


Electrically activated soft muscle for soft robotics

Artificial biceps. Credit: Aslan Miriyev & Columbia Engineering.

Until now, pneumatic or hydraulic inflation was necessary to create muscle-like structures made of elastomer skins. Such mechanisms require external compressors or high voltage equipment to function, an issue for developing human-like robots. This may soon change, according to a paper published in Nature Communications.

Scientists from Columbia Engineering have developed the first artificial active tissue with intrinsic expansion ability, capable of functioning as a soft muscle due to its high actuation stress and strain properties. The tissue, which is built using a 3D printer, is inspired by living organisms and made of a silicone rubber matrix with ethanol. To actuate, the artificial muscle uses electricity, instead of cumbersome external equipment. According to Aslan Miriyev, lead author of the study:

Our soft functional material may serve as robust soft muscle, possibly revolutionizing the way that soft robotic solutions are engineered today. It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It's the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle.

Artificial muscle before actuation.
Credit: Aslan Miriyev & Columbia Engineering.
Artificial muscle after actuation.
Credit: Aslan Miriyev & Columbia Engineering.

The new material can expand more than natural muscle, with a strain density 15 times larger. Also, it can lift one thousand times its own weight. Finally, the team of scientists plans to work on improving the muscle’s response time, but in the future, they want to work with artificial intelligence researchers to learn how to control the muscle.

Source: Phys.org


To round off our weekly science wrap up, researchers in Australia have effectively processed information using light. The team was able to send a package of 'data photons' through a waveguide that slows them down and to interact with them using a 'write' pulse. This increases the wavelength of the photons by the desired frequency which turns them into a 'phonon'.

Finally, a SETI scientist has listed seven places where microbial life could be found in space. In the list are Mars, three of the four Galilean moons that orbit around Jupiter, two of Saturn's moons, and Pluto. To find microbial life would be a first step for the SETI Institute in the search of its main goal, which is to find extraterrestrial intelligence.

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