Some of the smallest parts of all living things are the individual cells that compose tissues, organs, and bone. Cells are so tiny they can only be observed directly under a microscope. Researchers at MIT have announced a discovery that could allow mass production of self-powered robots that are the size of cells.
These tiny cell-sized robots are called “syncells,” which is short for synthetic cells, and the researchers believe these tiny bots might be used to monitor conditions inside oil or gas pipelines or to search for disease in the bloodstream of a person. MIT says that the key to making these tiny devices in large quantities harnesses the natural fracturing process of atomically-thin and brittle materials.
The process involves directing the fracture lines to create tiny pockets of a predictable size and shape, inside those pockets are electronic circuits and materials for collecting, recording, and outputting data. The process for creating these tiny objects is called “autoperforation.”
In the autoperforation process, the scientists used a two-dimensional form of carbon called graphene to form the outside of the syncells. One layer of the material was laid down on a surface, then dots of polymer material with the electronics needed was deposited using a special lab version of an inkjet printer. A second layer of graphene is then laid on top.
When that second graphene sheet it laid over the top of the printed circuits and bottom layer, round pillar shapes are formed. When the graphene drapes over the pillars, high strain edges are formed. Fractures in the brittle graphene material form at these high strain edges allowing the formation of the tiny, round syncells. The team says this process opens a new toolkit for micro- and nanofabrication.