Tiny Engine – Big Healthcare Breakthrough?


Imagine a robot that is tiny enough to enter a single, living cell in your body. It could – at least in theory – directly deliver drugs custom-tailored to your DNA profile. It could conduct surgery using microscopic tools, and destroy cancerous cells. It could explore your body, looking for the cause of a puzzling medical symptom, or monitoring and adjusting your vital signs.

Nano-machines have been touted as a theoretical medical miracle cure for a long time. In the classic film “Fantastic Voyage” a crew of scientists and their submarine are miniaturized. They then travel through the body of a scientist with valuable military defense information who was badly injured in an assassination attempt. They have one hour to enter the brain, remove the clot and get out.

The movie had many plot twists and a puzzling ending involving the small submarine. And, despite decades of nano-tech breakthroughs, there are problems in implementing these devices in the real world. Chief among these issues was finding a logical way to make nano-machines move.

But now, thanks to a group of researchers at the University of Cambridge, we’re now a giant step closer to making miniscule robots a reality.

The research team have developed the world’s tiniest engine – just a few billionths of a meter in size – powered by an explosive force that exists between molecules. The engine could power future nano-machines that can navigate in liquids, sense the environment around them, and be used as tiny Special Forces troops to fight disease.

The engine prototype is made of tiny charged particles of gold, held in place with a gel formed of temperature-responsive polymers. When heat is applied via a beam of light from a laser, the polymers release all the water from the gel within a fraction of a second and collapse. This forces the gold nanoparticles are together into tight clusters.

The device then cools, the gel re-absorbs the water (again, this happens in less than a second) and the gold nanoparticles snap apart violently. This process of expansion and contraction powers the engine, and it has a lot of torque. The forces exerted by these tiny devices are several orders of magnitude larger than those for any other previously produced device, with a force per unit weight nearly a hundred times better than any motor or muscle.

“It’s like an explosion,” said Dr Tao Ding from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.  “We have hundreds of gold balls flying apart in a millionth of a second when water molecules inflate the polymers around them.”

According to the researchers, the devices are also bio-compatible, cost-effective to manufacture, fast to respond, and energy efficient.

Professor Jeremy Baumberg from the Cavendish Laboratory, who led the research, has named the devices ‘ANTs’, or actuating nano-transducers. “Like real ants, they produce large forces for their weight. The challenge we now face is how to control that force for nano-machinery applications.”

The team is currently working with Cambridge Enterprise and several other companies with the aim of commercializing this technology. But as the Washington Post reports, The University of Cambridge engine needs a bit of refining before it can be hitched to a nanoscale object.

“Our main challenge is how to build a device that harnesses the forces for motion in one direction – a bit like a piston on a steam engine … currently the force just expands and contracts in all directions.”” Jeremy Baumberg, a University of Cambridge nanophotonics professor, wrote in a message to the Post.

But once that directional problem is solved — he envisions “tiny nanomachines that can walk around, controlled by beams of light.”

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