In abstract:

How molecular robot arms may shape the future of nanorobotics

An innovative molecular robot arm system which allows cargo to be transported between points of just two nanometres (two millionths of a millimetre) on a molecular platform has been developed by researchers at The University of Manchester. The molecular arm is able to ‘pick up’ cargo from its original site on the platform, change position (the arm is steered using a rotary switch) and then set the cargo down at a new location, before returning to its original position. The cargo in this case is a 3-mercaptopropanehydrazide molecule, with pick up/release controlled by the formation/breakage of a disulfide bond. The molecular arm is steered by an embedded hydrazine rotary switch.

This is important in the development of nanorobotics. It is envisaged that one day molecular robots will be able to manipulate minute components to perform demanding and complex tasks with minimal effort and maximum precision - much like their full-size counterparts. The arrival of such technology would signify the beginnings of a fundamentally new approach to manufacturing and manipulating matter at the nanoscale.

With a success rate of 79-85%, the molecular robot arm developed by the researchers is able to transport 3-mercaptopropanehydrazide molecules in either direction between two platform sites - without breaking its bond with the machinery or exchanging with other molecules.

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  • A machine operating between sites of just two nanometres would require an entirely different mechanism to one operating between sites of two metres). As gravity is irrelevant at a molecular level, the cargo molecule must be bound to the machinery at the beginning, during transit, and at the end.
  • Nanotechnology has strong social and economic relevance for all nations. Molecular robotic systems will ultimately reduce power requirements, accelerate drug and material discovery, facilitate recycling and reduce life-cycle costs. Molecular robotics has the potential to be the cornerstone of revolutionary technologies that will impact on public health, energy, transport and security.
  • Designing a robotic arm that operates at the molecular level is challenging because the way that matter behaves at the nanoscale is so counterintuitive. One cannot just scale down engineering concepts from our ‘big world’, a whole new set of principles has to be developed.
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