Plant-based materials will be the building blocks for soft medical microrobots

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A team of researchers at the University of Waterloo has developed smart, advanced materials that will be the building blocks for future generations of soft medical microrobots.

These tiny robots have the potential to perform medical procedures such as biopsies and cell and tissue transport in a minimally invasive fashion. They can pass through confined and flooded environments such as the human body and deliver delicate and light cargo such as cells or tissues to target locations.

The tiny soft robots are a maximum of one centimeter long and are bio-compatible and non-toxic. The robots are made of advanced hydrogel composites that incorporate sustainable plant-derived cellulose nanoparticles.

The research, led by chemical engineering professor Hamed Shahsavan, illustrates a holistic approach to the design, synthesis, fabrication and manipulation of microrobots. The hydrogel used in this work changes its shape when exposed to external chemical stimuli. The ability to concentrate cellulose nanoparticles will enable researchers to program such shape-shifting, which is crucial for building functional soft robots.

In my research group, we’re bridging the old and the new. “We introduce emerging microrobots using traditional soft materials such as hydrogels, liquid crystals and colloids.”

Shahsavan, Director, Smart Materials for Advanced Robotic Technologies (Smart-Lab)

Another unique element of this advanced smart component is that it is self-healing, which allows for a wide range of programming in the form of robots. Researchers can cut the material and paste it back together without using glue or other adhesives to create different shapes for different procedures.

The material can be further modified with a magnetism that facilitates the movement of soft robots through the human body. As a proof of concept for how the robot would move through the body, the tiny robot was moved through a maze by researchers controlling its movement using a magnetic field.

“Chemical engineers play an important role in pushing the frontiers of medical microrobotics research,” Shahsavan said. “Interestingly, the skills and knowledge of chemical engineers are needed to address many of the grand challenges of microrobotics, including heat and mass transfer, fluid mechanics, reaction engineering, polymers, soft matter science, and biochemical systems. Pathways to this emerging field.”

The next step in this research is to scale the robot to the submillimeter scale.

Shahsavan’s research team collaborated with Tijaju Meknen, professor of chemical engineering at Waterloo, associate dean of science (research) Professor Shirley Tang, and professor Amirreza Agakhani of the University of Stuttgart, Germany. They published their findings last month in Nature Communications.

Professor Hamed Shahsawan designs smart programmable soft robots

Image credit: University of Waterloo

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