Daily Archives: August 31, 2020
In 1959, former Cornell physicist Richard Feynman delivered his famous lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” in which he described the opportunity for shrinking technology, from machines to computer chips, to incredibly small sizes. Well, the bottom just got more crowded. A Cornell-led collaboration has created the first microscopic robots that incorporate semiconductor components, allowing them to be controlled – and made to walk – with standard electronic signals. These robots, roughly the size of paramecium, provide a template for building even more complex versions that utilize silicon-based intelligence, can be mass produced, and may someday travel through human tissue and blood.
The collaboration is led by Itai Cohen, professor of physics, Paul McEuen, the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science – both in the College of Arts and Sciences – and their former postdoctoral researcher Marc Miskin, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
The walking robots are the latest iteration, and in many ways an evolution, of Cohen and McEuen’s previous nanoscale creations, from microscopic sensors to graphene-based origami machines. The new robots are about 5 microns thick (a micron is one-millionth of a meter), 40 microns wide and range from 40 to 70 microns in length. Each bot consists of a simple circuit made from silicon photovoltaics – which essentially functions as the torso and brain – and four electrochemical actuators that function as legs. As basic as the tiny machines may seem, creating the legs was an enormous feat.
“In the context of the robot’s brains, there’s a sense in which we’re just taking existing semiconductor technology and making it small and releasable,” said McEuen, who co-chairs the Nanoscale Science and Microsystems Engineering (NEXT Nano) Task Force, part of the provost’s Radical Collaboration initiative, and directs the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science.
“But the legs did not exist before,” McEuen said. “There were no small, electrically activatable actuators that you could use. So we had to invent those and then combine them with the electronics.”
The team’s paper, “Electronically Integrated, Mass-Manufactured, Microscopic Robots,” has been published in Nature.