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2nd October 2017

University of Manchester scientists design nanorobot that can build molecules

Professor David Leigh and his research team have worked together to create a robot that can be programmed to carry out basic chemical reactions

Scientists at the University of Manchester have created the world’s first nanorobot which has been programmed to complete basic tasks to aid chemists in labs, including building molecules. The robot itself is a millionth of a millimetre in size, therefore a billion billion of these robots packed into a pile would still only be the size of a grain of salt by weight and volume.

The robots, when clustered together, operate using a tiny robotic arm which can be controlled and programmed by scientists to carry out chemical reactions in specific solutions. The purpose of these robots could have many benefits for the future; the small size of the robot reduces demand for materials, it can reduce power requirements and can improve drug discovery in many scientific fields.

This has become a very exciting time for the chemistry department at the university as Professor David Leigh, the head of research on this project, reveals to the university press team, “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 like 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.”

This new design involves moving the robotic arm between two platform sites which are organocatalysts of different chirality — or ‘mirror images’ of each other — so that successive chemical reactions can occur. The reaction still takes place in one pot and the robot can be programmed to “produce selectively each isomer of the product by controlling the switch-state prior to each reaction of the substrate” as explained by the Leigh Group.

Professor Leigh stated, “The robots are assembled and operated using chemistry. This is the science of how atoms and molecules react with each other and how larger molecules are constructed from smaller ones.

“It is the same sort of process scientists use to make medicines and plastics from simple chemical building blocks. Then, once the nanorobots have been constructed, they are operated by scientists by adding chemical inputs which tell the robots what to do and when, just like a computer program.”

The functioning of the robot is extremely complex. However, the research team has designed this machine for everyday use and for basic laboratory processes to speed up the workload. This could save an enormous amount of time that is wasted daily to put together molecules to check if the chemical reactions could take place. It will also increase the miniaturisation of other products and this will only contribute to helping research scientists in the future.

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