The tiny robots, which are a millionth of a millimetre in size, can be programmed to move and build molecular cargo, using a tiny robotic arm.
Each individual robot is capable of manipulating a single molecule and is made up of just 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms. To put that size into context, a billion billion of these robots piled on top of each other would still only be the same size as a single grain of salt.
The robots operate by carrying out chemical reactions in special solutions which can then be controlled and programmed by scientists to perform the basic tasks.
In the future such robots could be used for medical purposes, advanced manufacturing processes and even building molecular factories and assembly lines.
‘It is similar to the way robots are used on a car assembly line. Those robots pick up a panel and position it so that it can be riveted in the correct way to build the bodywork of a car. So, just like the robot in the factory, our molecular version can be programmed to position and rivet components in different ways to build different products, just on a much smaller scale at a molecular level.’
The benefit of having machinery that is so small is it massively reduces demand for materials, can accelerate and improve drug discovery, dramatically reduce power requirements and rapidly increase the miniaturisation of other products. Therefore, the potential applications for molecular robots are extremely varied and exciting.
Prof Leigh says: ‘Molecular robotics represents the ultimate in the miniaturisation of machinery. Our aim is to design and make the smallest machines possible. This is just the start but we anticipate that within 10 to 20 years molecular robots will begin to be used to build molecules and materials on assembly lines in molecular factories.’
Whilst building and operating such tiny machine is extremely complex, the techniques used by the team are based on simple chemical processes.
Prof Leigh added: ‘The robots are assembled and operated using chemistry. This is the science of how atoms and molecules react with each other and how larger molecules are constructed from smaller ones.
‘It is the same sort of process scientists use to make medicines and plastics from simple chemical building blocks. Then, once the nano-robots have been constructed, they are operated by scientists by adding chemical inputs which tell the robots what to do and when, just like a computer program.’
It has been convincingly argued1 that molecular machines that manipulate individual atoms, or highly reactive clusters of atoms, with Ångström precision are unlikely to be realized. However, biological molecular machines routinely position rather less reactive substrates in order to direct chemical reaction sequences, from sequence-specific synthesis by the ribosome to polyketide synthases where tethered molecules are passed from active site to active site in multi-enzyme complexes. Artificial molecular machines have been developed for tasks that include sequence-specific oligomer synthesis and the switching of product chirality a photo-responsive host molecule has been described that is able to mechanically twist a bound molecular guest, and molecular fragments have been selectively transported in either direction between sites on a molecular platform through a ratchet mechanism. Here we detail an artificial molecular machine that moves a substrate between different activating sites to achieve different product outcomes from chemical synthesis. This molecular robot can be programmed to stereoselectively produce, in a sequential one-pot operation, an excess of any one of four possible diastereoisomers from the addition of a thiol and an alkene to an α,β-unsaturated aldehyde in a tandem reaction process. The stereodivergent synthesis includes diastereoisomers that cannot be selectively synthesized through conventional iminium–enamine organocatalysis. We anticipate that future generations of programmable molecular machines may have significant roles in chemical synthesis and molecular manufacturing.