Researchers have developed a new technique of building microscopic robots nearly the size of cells.

For years, scientists have been working on mass-producing cell-sized devices that could be used to monitor the conditions not just inside oil or gas pipelines, but within the human body as well.

Now, a team of researchers from the Massachusets Institute of Technology could hold the key to creating microscopic robots in large quantities.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Materials, the researchers reported that their method, called autoperforation, enables them to control the natural fracturing process of “atomically-thin, brittle materials.”

With the capability to direct the fracture lines, they can reportedly produce tiny pockets of predictable shapes and sizes.

“We discovered that you can use the brittleness,” Michael Strano, one of the MIT researchers, said in a statement“It’s counterintuitive. Before this work, if you told me you could fracture a material to control its shape at the nanoscale, I would have been incredulous.”

Read More: Nanobots Pair With Magnets for New Healthcare Applications

How the Microscopic Robots are Built

The researchers’ novel process involves putting two layers of graphene, one over an array of polymer dots which act as tiny semiconductors, and one below. Once the graphene settles over the round edges of the dots, strain lines will start to show up.

“Imagine a tablecloth falling slowly down onto the surface of a circular table. One can very easily visualize the developing circular strain toward the table edges, and that’s very much analogous to what happens when a flat sheet of graphene folds around these printed polymer pillars,” Albert Liu, an MIT graduate student who worked with Strano on the project, explained.

Once the folding pattern becomes evident, the researchers discovered that the graphene will be completely fractured around the periphery of the pillar. As a result, the process produces a round, clean piece of graphene that looks as if it has been cut out by a tiny hole punch. Since there are two layers of graphene, the resulting disks stick at the edges, forming pita bread-like pockets with the polymer sealed within.

According to Strano, the tiny objects they created, called syncells or synthetic cells, “start to look and behave like a living biological cell.” In fact, Strano claims that under a microscope, people could be convinced that they are real cells. To prove the effectiveness of their method, Strano wrote the letters M, I, and T into a mass-produced syncell.

“I think it opens up a whole new toolkit for micro- and nanofabrication,” Strano went on to say.

“This general procedure of using controlled fracture as a production method can be extended across many length scales,” Liu added. “[It could potentially be used with] essentially any 2-D materials of choice, in principle allowing future researchers to tailor these atomically thin surfaces into any desired shape or form for applications in other disciplines.”

Aside from their industrial and medical applications, where else do you think microscopic robots could be used efficiently?

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