Researchers at eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands took inspiration from a tiny sea creature to create a molecule-driven centimeter-level robot,media New Atlas reported. By being able to capture and release objects underwater, the team envisioned a range of applications for its new machine, including collecting contaminants with tentacles and even capturing cells as a biomedical tool.
The wireless aquatic robot was inspired by the coralworm, a small, soft organism that combines in huge numbers to form coral reefs. These small animals are characterized by specific movements in the center’s stems, which generate small currents that attract food particles and allow their tentacles to catch. At this point, the researchers see some interesting possibilities.
“I was inspired by the movement of these corals, especially their ability to interact with the environment through homemade currents,” explains study author Marina Pilz Da Cunha. Pilz Da Cunha and her team recreate this by starting with a stem that moves under the influence of a rotating magnet below, allowing it to generate current in the surrounding water. This has the effect of attracting contaminant particles in the water, which is then taken over by the light-activated tentacles.
These tentacles are made of photomechanical polymer materials that react to light at different wavelengths. When exposed to ultraviolet light, the tentacles react to “grabbing” and the blue light causes them to “release”. In general, this creates a one-centimeter-long, soft robot that can grab small objects underwater through magnets and light.
“Combining two different stimuli is rare because it requires sophisticated material preparation and assembly, but it is fun for creating unbounded robots because it allows for complex shape changes and tasks,” explains Pilz Da Cunha.
In one experiment, the team demonstrated the ability of a coral-inspired robot by having the robot capture oil droplets from a water sample. As an additional layer of functionality, the robot can also be kept in a new shape, such as a “grab” state, until it is exposed to the correct light. This helps control the grab arm; once something is grabbed, the robot can keep it until it is stimulated by light again. Pilz Da Cunha said.
For the next step, the team is working on a team of small robots that could work together to transport particles, one of which passes them to the next robot. Later, the team envisions using them to capture and transport specific cells as part of advanced diagnostic equipment.
The findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.