Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new method mass producing tiny robots no bigger than a single cell.
The microscopic devices, which the team calls 'syncells' - short for synthetic cells - could eventually be used to monitor conditions inside an oil or gas pipeline, or to search out disease while floating through the bloodstream, the researchers claim.
The team has been able to make these tiny devices in large quantities via a method developed for controlling the natural fracturing process of atomically-thin, brittle materials, directing the fracture lines so that they produce miniscule pockets of a predictable size and shape.
Embedded inside these pockets are electronic circuits and materials that can collect, record, and output data. This process, called 'autoperforation', was uncovered by MIT Professor Michael Strano, post doctorate student Pingwei Liu, graduate student Albert Liu, and eight others.
The system uses a two-dimensional form of carbon, called graphene, which forms the outer structure of the tiny syncells.
One layer of the material is laid down on a surface, then tiny dots of a polymer material, containing the electronics for the devices, are deposited by a laboratory version of an inkjet printer. Then, a second layer of graphene is laid on top.
The new system controls the fracturing process so that rather than generating random shards of material, like the remains of a broken window, it produces pieces of uniform shape and size.
"What we discovered is that you can impose a strain field to cause the fracture to be guided, and you can use that for controlled fabrication," said Strano.
When the top layer of graphene is placed over the array of polymer dots, which form round pillar shapes, the places where the graphene drapes over the round edges of the pillars form lines of high strain in the material.
As a result, the fractures are concentrated right along those boundaries, then the graphene will completely fracture, but the fracture will be guided around the periphery of the pillar."
The result is a neat, round piece of graphene that looks as if it had been cleanly cut out by a microscopic hole punch.
Ranging in size from that of a human red blood cell, about 10 micrometers across, up to about 10 times that size, these tiny objects "start to look and behave like a living biological cell. In fact, under a microscope, you could probably convince most people that it is a cell," Strano added.
"I think it opens up a whole new toolkit for micro- and nanofabrication."
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