Microscopic robots are poised to fight disease and revolutionize modern technology.
Imagine a robot that's able to grip atoms and handle particles 100,000 times smaller than a single human hair.
Now imagine that the same robot can create new molecules to treat illnesses more effectively, and can help in the development of lighter and more resistant materials.
Called "nanorobots," these molecular workers toil away in the most microscopic of worlds and are considered the "Canadarm" of nanotechnology. These miniature machines will soon allow us to operate directly at the molecular level and improve the efficiency of appliances and tools that are indispensable for modern life-such as computers, airplanes, medical devices, and cars.
But before they can reach that point, researchers must first develop and perfect nanorobots that can manoeuvre in spaces where the conventional laws of physics don't necessarily apply. In fact, at the nanometric scale, the least variation in temperature, luminous intensity, or flow of energy could cause a robot to deviate significantly from its route trying to accomplish its precise task.
This is the challenge that Sylvain Martel, Scientific Director of the new Nanorobotics Laboratory at the École polytechnique de Montréal, has chosen to tackle. The lab's new research infrastructure will allow him to develop computer and electromagnetic systems that are capable of guiding and controlling nanorobots working at the molecular scale.
"Today's robots are not adapted to assemble molecules at an acceptable speed. We need to invent new instruments that can handle atoms, one by one, to make revolutionary new molecular structures," says Martel, who also holds the Canada Research Chair in Conception, Fabrication and Validation of Micro/Nanosystems, and is a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
"The Nanorobotics Laboratory allows us to bring together, under one roof, research from a variety of diverse disciplines," Martel says, "such as information technology, mechanical engineering, and physics to pursue the development of ultra-specialized robots."
The lab's fundamental research also offers numerous opportunities for industrial commercialization. In fact, several large corporations are watching Martel's work with great interest, believing it could lead to new industrial processes and the development of new materials.
With support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada , École polytechnique de Montréal, and Nano-Québec, the new laboratory will make it possible for researchers to undertake fundamental research not carried out anywhere else in Canada, and in only a handful of laboratories in the world. It will also allow a number of students, like Dominic St-Jacques, to pursue advanced research in leading-edge applications. St-Jacques is a graduate in information engineering who has chosen to pursue his Master's degree at the Nanorobotics Laboratory.
"The lab has allowed me to specialize in an exciting and cutting-edge field that I didn't even know existed. The complexity of interactions at the nanometric scale is pushing us to develop computational algorithms at a level of difficulty that can't be compared with those of other disciplines," says St-Jacques. "I really have the feeling of being a pioneer, of working at the cutting edge of scientific research."
Several years ago, Sylvain Martel revolutionized the world of nanotechnology by announcing the development of a miniature wireless robot.
The robot is capable of 4,000 movements a second, executing 48 million tasks, making 200,000 precise measurements at the atomic scale, and exchanging 4 million bits of information with a computer through an infra-red communication link. Nicknamed "NanoWalker," it can work independently at the sub-atomic scale.
"The development of these robots gave rise to a number of problems that we need to solve before we can design robots that are able to work at an even smaller scale," says Martel. "The Nanorobotics Laboratory will allow us to develop techniques that can not only be applied to making control and manipulation equipment, but also have numerous other applications in nanotechnology."
The Nanorobotics Laboratory is studying a refrigeration system for robots, a sort of specialized air conditioning that cools down robots and allows them to accomplish their tasks at the atomic level. By using helium, Martel and his team have succeeded in lowering the surface temperature at which the robots work to -185 degrees Celsius, which helps to stabilize the sudden movements of molecules and atoms being manipulated. Eventually, this process could be very useful in developing new industrial materials.
Another promising area of research at the Laboratory is the plan to introduce particles measuring 1 to 2 microns (1,000 to 2,000 nanometres) into blood vessels. The goal? To explore parts of the human body that would otherwise be difficult to access. The Laboratory is currently working on developing a system that would propel and control these miniature explorers by means of a magnetic field.
"These machines will be very useful to pharmaceutical companies and could even detect cancerous cells that would otherwise be undetectable," says Martel. "We're fortunate to have access to a laboratory that enables us to do fundamental, leading-edge research. We believe that with a bit of perseverance we can crack the secrets of the nano-world."
The world of nanotechnology is so vast and unexplored that all innovative approaches, especially if they advance construction techniques of nanostructures, are extremely welcome," says Robert Sing, Director of Administration at Nano-Québec, the Québec network for research in nanoscience and nanotechnology.
Nano-Québec co-ordinates research in this leading-edge sector at Quebec universities. The majority of the research deals with the development of new materials, the surface engraving processes at the nanometric scale (engraving of electronic circuits by means of a light beam), and the development of techniques for the pharmaceutical industry.
Sing's main interest in the new Nanorobotics Laboratory lies in its ability to advance research in the manipulation of atoms, and the development of observation and control tools to handle these very small particles. "The immediate and concrete fall-out of all of the research in this field is difficult to predict. Nanotechnology research is a long-term commitment. It will take 10 to 15 years to harvest the fruits of our efforts, and then we'll see revolutionary industrial and medical applications," he says.