Plant-based Materials Give ‘Life’ to Tiny Soft Microrobots
A groundbreaking discovery has been made by a team of researchers from the University of Waterloo. They have successfully developed smart, advanced materials that are set to be the foundation for the next generation of soft medical microrobots.
- These minuscule robots have the capability to perform medical procedures, such as biopsies, as well as transport cells and tissues, in a manner that is minimally invasive.
- The robots can navigate through tight and fluid-filled spaces, akin to the human body, and can safely deliver fragile and lightweight cargo, like cells or tissues, to a specified location.
- These soft robots, which are no longer than one centimeter, are biocompatible and non-toxic. Remarkably, they are constructed from advanced hydrogel composites that incorporate sustainable cellulose nanoparticles sourced from plants.
- The research, spearheaded by Hamed Shahsavan, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, offers a comprehensive approach to the design, synthesis, fabrication, and manipulation of microrobots. The hydrogel utilized in this study undergoes a shape transformation when subjected to external chemical stimuli. The strategic orientation of cellulose nanoparticles empowers researchers to program this shape-change, a pivotal aspect for the creation of functional soft robots.
- Shahsavan, who also heads the Smart Materials for Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART-Lab), stated, “In my research group, we are bridging the old and new. We introduce emerging microrobots by leveraging traditional soft matter like hydrogels, liquid crystals, and colloids.”
- Another distinctive feature of this advanced smart material is its self-healing property. This allows for a broad spectrum of robot shapes as researchers can seamlessly cut and rejoin the material without the need for glues or other bonding agents.
- Additionally, the material can be enhanced with magnetism, enabling the soft robots to move within the human body. To demonstrate the robot’s navigation capabilities, the team successfully guided the robot through a maze using a controlled magnetic field.
- Emphasizing the pivotal role of chemical engineers in advancing medical microrobotics research, Shahsavan remarked, “Interestingly, tackling the many grand challenges in microrobotics requires the skillset and knowledge chemical engineers possess, including heat and mass transfer, fluid mechanics, reaction engineering, polymers, soft matter science, and biochemical systems. So, we are uniquely positioned to introduce innovative avenues in this emerging field.”
- The next phase of this research aims to miniaturize the robot to submillimeter scales.
- Collaborators on this project included Tizazu Mekonnen, a professor from the Department of Chemical Engineering, Professor Shirley Tang, Associate Dean of Science (Research), and Amirreza Aghakhani, a professor from the University of Stuttgart in Germany.
This research holds immense promise for the future of medical procedures, offering a glimpse into the potential of soft robotics in healthcare.