The invisible world: molecular robots that can build molecules

The invisible world: molecular robots that can build molecules

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By Innorobo

Read the interview of Professor David Leigh, Chimist

We are beginning to have a good vision of tomorrow’s world where we will cohabit with robots, namely thanks to the service robots, educational robots and industrial robots that we regularly see in the media. But have you thought about those that we cannot see? Welcome to nanotechnology: the world of the invisible!

What is a molecular robot and what is it used for?

Professor David Leigh and his colleagues from the University of Manchester, with funding from the European Union and the UK government, have designed a molecular machine, or nanorobot, with a ‘robotic arm’ that is able to pick up a molecular cargo, reposition it, set it down and release it at a second site approximately 2 nm (0.000002 mm) away from the starting position. Composed of only 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms, it is the tiniest robot in the world. In comparison, a robot made using DNA was a thousand times bigger than the molecular robot in terms of volume.

The main application of molecular robots would be the creation of “molecular factories”. Thus, they would be used to synthesize new molecules. By programming these molecules via chemical impulses, they can be made to build different kinds of molecules (pharmaceuticals, materials, etc.), in the same way that robots assemble cars on an assembly line in factory.

At this very small scale, molecular robots will be able to construct innovative new eco-friendly materials, as highly targeted actions on specific molecules become possible.

Moreover, nanorobot’s small size allows it to be infinitely more precise in the movement of components and its constitution enables it to operate in very different environments, unlike the DNA robot, which can only function in water or an equivalent environment. On the other hand, it is much more difficult to program a molecular robot, as an entire synthetic system must be designed. This is not the case with the DNA robot, which can be easily handled thanks to the preexisting DNA code.

From its beginning to its design…

As most of the work involves learning how to design and assemble systems, it would have taken the researchers about 3 years to develop the first robot. Now, as the operation is easily reproducible, repeating the synthesis to create new ones would take 3 or 4 weeks.

Currently, these molecular robots can build only four different molecules thanks to two chemical reactions obtained by injecting solutions into the robot. For the time being, there are more efficient ways of building and modifying molecules than using a molecular robot, but one day the robot will become more efficient, capable of building billions and billions of different molecules.


The robot is obviously invisible to the naked eye. As a result, the researchers either use computer modeling to know exactly what the robot is doing, or rely on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), already used in hospitals to perform MRIs, in order to probe and locate the robot. The NMR is able to look at the environment of a particular atom and say exactly what these atoms are doing, making it possible to follow every step of the molecular robot.

Nanotechnology: the ultimate ecological and economic system

Molecular robots will be safer and more beneficial in many respects. They will be highly efficient in terms of new materials creation, waste disposal, energy savings and raw materials. They represent a great hope in ecological matters.

At the moment, molecular robots that build things and cure cancer are science fiction”, says Professor David Leigh, “but what we’re starting to know is that science fiction can become fact. It takes some time, and it’s not going to happen tomorrow but we are making progress towards things that are science fiction. The very first step has been taken.

For now, the nanorobots can only do very simple things that scientists can also do by combining chemicals in a flask and letting the chemical reaction run its course. But as soon as molecular robots are able to do things that we cannot do in other ways, they will become economically important.


This is just the beginning. To be continued…


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