Robots are cool. Robots that work at the molecular level? They are even cooler — and there is no limit to what they could do.

While science has been fascinated by the incredibly small building blocks of the world for hundreds of years, it has only been since the 1980s that scientific understanding and technological development have truly allowed nanoscience to become an active field of research.

We used to think of impressive robots as incredibly large or incredibly complex, but thanks to new and exciting developments, nanorobotics is poised to completely redefine many areas of science and technology.

How little we say, exactly?

DNAmolecule

Nanorobotics deals with materials at the molecular level and less, which means that nanorobots work with individual atoms, proteins, molecules and cells.

One of the easiest ways to understand why nanoscience is so important is to think of all these nanoscopic atoms as LEGO blocks.

Like LEGO, atoms and molecules can be combined in countless ways to create anything in the natural world, and this ability opens the door to impact literally every aspect of our lives.

If the LEGO analogy doesn’t work, Big Hero 6’s «MicroBots» is another pretty good way to conceptualize nanobots — just remember that nanobots are a few million times smaller than dummy microbots!

What do nanorobots do?

Nanotechnology has already allowed us to create stronger and more durable materials by manipulating molecular structures and has been the driving force behind many modern technologies (including the plastic film that makes up your laptop or phone screen!).

Research in the field of nanorobotics has a different focus, and their application is much more interesting.

Recent scientific discoveries have created nanorobots that are capable of performing highly specialized functions at the nanoscopic level. Some nanorobots act as switches, others act as pumps, and still others act as motors that can propel that nanorobot through space and liquid.

These deceptively simple molecular machines can be used to create custom polypeptides from amino acids; use carefully calculated chemical reactions to «walk» through environments too tiny or too hostile to other mechanisms; and act as a pathway for transferring key molecules from one location to another.

Many applications of nanorobots are already redefining technology, medicine and ecology — and nanorobots are really in their infancy when you consider all that they can achieve in the future!

What does the future of nanorobots look like?

Nanorobot Computers

Since 1994, Nanorobot switches have been developed that are sensitive to light and chemicals, giving designers the ability to influence when they perform (or do not perform) their functions.

Another great use for switches? Basic computing tasks.

Researchers are currently working on how to encode information in nanorobots in the same way as in a large computer. Nanorobots have already been able to perform memory storage/retrieval tasks at a basic level, but in the near future this technology will be used to create high-density memory cells that can store incredibly large amounts of information in an incredibly small physical space.

Nanorobot Cancer Treatment

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Nanotechnology is changing medicine and this is changing rapidly. Nanorobots give doctors the ability to treat diseases at their molecular source, a capability unmatched by any drug on the market.

Nanorobot switches sensitive to specific wavelengths of light are being considered for use in cancer treatment. One potential treatment is too dangerous to use in its current form because it cannot distinguish between cancerous and noncancerous cells.

Borowiak et al suggest that if the nanobot’s light-sensitive switch was included in the processing, an area up to 10 micrometers wide could be targeted by the light source. The light would cause the nanorobot to switch to «flip», activating the connection in such a way as to destroy only the targeted cancer cells, while healthy cells survive. Even better, if these switches could be reused, it could greatly reduce the number of invasive procedures a person undergoing cancer treatment would have to face!

Nanobot, MD

Another exciting medical potential relies heavily on nanorobot motors that can be controlled from a distance to deliver drugs to precise locations in the body. These motors are usually created by creating a chemical reaction that propels the robot through a liquid. Until recently, these engines often relied on chemical reactions that were unsafe for human use.

Recent developments in nanorobot motors from Gao et al. Made them much safer! Tiny nanorobot motors could be created by reacting the tube-shaped nanorobot motor’s zinc core with stomach acid, a safe chemical reaction that could allow drugs to be quickly delivered to the stomach lining. So far, this procedure has only been tested in rats, but so far the research is promising.

Magnetic nanorobots are also being developed that can quickly (in seconds!) deliver drugs through the bloodstream using a magnetic field (shown in the video below)

Nanobots in the environment

Much nanorobot research aims to make processes smaller, but they also take into account their impact at the macro level. Hundreds of thousands of microscopic nanorobots working together in a coordinated effort may be our only hope for saving the environment.

A significant amount of environmental nanotechnology research has focused on whether nanorobots could be useful in removing pollution. Pollution has reached critical levels in places like China, and nanorobots light enough to take to the air can capture pollutants at the nanoscopic level or be used in factories that produce emissions to stop pollution at its source.

Similarly, there is hope that nanorobots will be created that can be mass-produced to deal with disasters such as oil spills. Thanks to recent work teaching nanobots to work together, it is possible that each nanobot motor can act on individual oil molecules, working in concert with all other nanobots released for the same purpose.

The final incredible opportunity presented by nanotechnology in the natural environment is its potential to create clean drinking water. Many areas of the Earth are currently suffering from a lack of fresh, safe drinking water, a problem that nanorobots can solve. It is possible that nanorobots could destroy bacteria and other contaminants from unclean water sources, potentially saving countless lives.

perform many jobs. fulfill but it’s not enough for people anymore when it comes to the work that needs to be done in the environment, so it’s exciting to see that this whole field can be brought to life with nanotechnology!

Nanobots in sports

Scientists are my favorite people. They just are.

Scientists at the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) have developed nanobots that can play a hardball game of soccer using a grain of rice as a field and a ball less than a human hair wide as the ball. Nanorobots are controlled by magnetic fields or electronic signals and are made of materials such as aluminum, gold and silicon.

I’d like to believe that was their ultimate goal, but the truth is that games like this one help scientists measure what nanorobots are capable of (including agility, agility, and responsiveness) and fine-tune their design.

What else is on the horizon?

One of the most exciting parts of nanotechnology is that, as far as science is concerned, we have hardly touched its potential in the last thirty-odd years.

Thinking about the potential turf of these nanorobots can be inspiring, incredible… and a little scary. There is a lot of anti-robot sentiment in the world. and this definitely extends to nanorobots. Critics of nanotechnology often raise concerns that nanorobots are being used to negatively impact human health and their potential as weapons.

These criticisms are valid, and it will be important to ensure that the powers of nanotechnology are used for good and not for evil.

In this case, however, don’t the benefits that nanorobots can bring to human health, technology, the environment, and microscopic sports outweigh the risks?

What do you think will be the most exciting use of nanotechnology? Do you have any concerns about using it?

Image credit: Lego DNA by Michael Knowles via Flickr, Mirexon via Shutterstock.com; ktsdesign via Shutterstock.com

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