Each individual robot is made up of just 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms and can manipulate single molecules. 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, the scientists say robots like these could be used for medical purposes, advanced manufacturing processes and even building molecular factories and assembly lines.
Professor David Leigh, who led the research at University's School of Chemistry, explained: “Our robot is literally a molecular robot constructed of atoms just like you can build a very simple robot out of Lego bricks. The robot then responds to a series of simple commands that are programmed with chemical inputs by a scientist.
“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.”
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: “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.”
The benefit of having such small machinery is that 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 said: “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.”