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Tiny Terminators: New Micro-Robots Assemble, Repair Themselves and Are Surprisingly Strong

August 8, 2011 - 2:14pm

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A video of Argonne National Laboratory’s micro-robots — Tiny Terminators, if you will — moving glass beads.

It looks like the Terminator did come back after all -- just in a smaller form and with a different purpose.  In a project supported by the Energy Department’s Office of Science, researchers at Argonne National Laboratory have created tiny robots that can assemble and repair themselves, and easily perform tasks that can challenge other robots, including moving objects that are larger than themselves.

Most immediately, this technology will help scientists address the challenge of controlling and manipulating matter at its basic levels (more here). The robots will also have a variety of applications that could open doors to new discoveries. 

An Argonne video, featured above, shows how the robots operate and move objects, such as glass beads.

The robots in the video are just half a millimeter wide, roughly the size of a grain of salt, and built from microparticles that, like compass needles, can move in response to magnetic fields. To create their robots, two physicists at Argonne, Alexey Snezhko and Igor Aronson, took those magnetic particles, put them in a bath of two non-mixing (immiscible) fluids, and applied an alternating magnetic field, which caused them to self-assemble into spiky circular shapes that the scientists called "asters."

But the robots were stuck in place . . . until the scientists applied a second magnetic field. They found that by changing the fields across the fluid mix, they could make the robots move around, picking up non-magnetic objects – including objects larger than themselves (like glass beads), transporting them, and putting them back down. The robots have also proved adept at grabbing and gripping small objects without smashing them, a job that can challenge other robots.

How do the robots repair themselves? Well, if some microparticles are lost, the robot simply reshuffles itself and keeps moving, which also happens to be a process that could help create precisely designed functional materials in ways not currently possible.

You can read more about the research behind this effort and how it could lead to future discoveries in this Nature Materials article and in the Argonne National Lab release.

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