Manchester team creates “world’s first” molecular robots

A team at the University of Manchester has created what it claims are the world’s first molecular robots.

The tiny devices – which are a millionth of a millimetre in size and made up of just 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms – can be programmed to manipulate individual molecules, a capability that could have applications ranging from new drug advancement to the development of a host of miniaturised systems.

molecular robots
A conceptual image of a molecular robot in action. Image credit: Stuart Jantzen,

The robots operate by carrying out chemical reactions in special solutions which can then be controlled and programmed by scientists to perform the basic tasks.

Professor David Leigh, who led the research at the University’s School of Chemistry, explained: “All matter is made up of atoms and these are the basic building blocks that form molecules. Our robot is literally a molecular robot constructed of atoms just like you can build a very simple robot out of Lego bricks. The robot then responds to a series of simple commands that are programmed with chemical inputs by a scientist.

“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.”

Commenting on potential applications of the technology Prof Leigh said: “Molecular robotics represents the ultimate in the miniaturisation of machinery. Our aim is to design and make the smallest machines possible. 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.”

The group’s research paper is published in the journal Nature.