At Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Carnegie Mellon University, researchers are looking at robotic assembly on the micro scale. A recent paper in Nature Communications (subscription required) documents tiny robots capable of working with basic chips and living cells.
The robot, which is less than a millimeter long, is just a simple rectangle that contains metal particles. Magnets surrounding the building area pull it in any directions with enough power that the robot can push different blocks of material into place.
The researchers were able to use the robot to assemble 1mm square pieces of gel cut into different shapes, including squares, circles and triangles. But it is also capable of moving more complex shapes like spheres and rods. By sliding up a tiny ramp, the robot can stack objects to build taller structures.
The living cells could be encased in gel, which means the robot could someday engineer living tissue, which could be used to create an organ that could be transplanted into a human. The researchers used the bot to assemble three to four gel cubes at a time that contained mouse cells. After four days, they observed that the cells had survived and proliferated.
Interest is growing in the production of living tissue, which is becoming easier now that 3D printing is cheaper and easier. Organovo, for example, uses modified inkjet printing to build 3D products like liver and eye tissue. Just this week, a team at Houston Methodist Research Institute revealed an alternative printing method.
The robot is also capable of moving non-gel items like chiplets–tiny electronic circuits. It could someday assemble many different kinds of electronics components to create complex, customized devices.
“We are really just beginning to explore the many possibilities in using this micro-robotic technique to manipulate individual cells or cell-encapsulating building blocks,” associate professor of medicine Utkan Demirci said in a release. “This is a very exciting and rapidly evolving field that holds a lot of promise in medicine.”