Nanorobots To Handle Cells and Minute Materials - News Item

ROBOSEM is developing nanorobotic tools to handle minute quantities of materials and individual biological cells with nano-scale accuracy for integration into easy-to-use scanning electron microscope workstations.

Micro and nano-system technologies could form the basis of revolutionary manufacturing techniques leading to new generations of automotive, industrial, consumer and medical products that combine sustainability and eco-efficiency with hitherto unattainable performance. However, progress in this field has been hampered by the lack of suitable tools for manipulating and testing materials at scales approaching the dimensions of molecules and biological cells.

A first prerequisite is to be able to observe the implementation and effects of such actions. This is not possible using conventional optical microscopes, which have a maximum resolution of around 400 nm and a depth of field restricted by large apertures and short focal distances.

On the other hand, resolutions of under 3 nm and magnifications up to 250 000 times are available with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). A SEM also has a much larger depth of focus and working distance than a light microscope. And the vacuum required in its sample chamber provides dust-free conditions comparable to those of a clean room.

To capitalise on these advantages, ROBOSEM is developing a completely new type of nanohandling infrastructure. Smart multifunctional robots driven by compact piezoactuators and equipped with powerful sensory support will be integrated into a desktop SEM workstation environment.

The three-year project, launched in April 2002, focuses on three main applications:

  • Microassembly and handling of micromechanical objects
  • Nanomechanical testing
  • Cell handling in the field of functional- and pharmaco-genomics  

Demonstrators for each of these fields will be completed by the end of the funded period.

Meeting this multidisciplinary challenge is a consortium comprising 16 partners from seven European countries. It brings together the diverse skills and experience of fundamental and applied researchers, hardware producers that include SEM manufacturer LEO Electron Microscopy, software developers and industrial end-users.

Within the first year, two platforms were produced for coarse positioning within the SEM workstation. One is a mobile unit permitting semiautonomous movement of mounted robots, while the other is a fixed version more suited to repetitive routine tasks. Both will support the same modular range of manipulators and ‘end-effector’ tools, making it a simple matter to adapt the desktop station to different applications.

As the data delivered by a conventionally equipped SEM is not sufficient to control the envisaged operations, additional micro video cameras and tactile/force sensors are being developed. A particular goal of ROBOSEM is to realise gripper-integrated force microsensors for telemanipulation with the aid of a haptic (touch-based) interface or automatic control via sensor feedback.

To permit realtime processing of the sensor data, a PC-based parallel computer system will be used, together with special data-processing techniques employing dedicated algorithms, fuzzy logic and neural networks. The possibilities of a virtual-reality representation of the working environment are also under investigation.

“Solving the problems of microsystem assembly will bring great added value to many different kinds of product,” observes project coordinator Professor Sergej Fatikow of Kuratorium Offis, an incorporated research society spun off from the University of Oldenburg, Germany. “In the domain of electronics, for example, the ability to build precisely configured multichip devices, rather than relying on monolithic solutions, would provide improved flexibility with reduced development cost and risk.

“Another important application of the nanorobot will be nanomechanical testing, where no standard methods yet exist and databases of fundamental properties are extremely scarce. Characterisation of nanomaterials by techniques such as nanoindentation and nanoscratch demands microscopic observation combined with integrated measurement of nN/µN forces and nanometre displacement.

“ROBOSEM aims to produce a system that will provide data on the mechanical properties of powders, coatings, fibres and micro components as a basis for regular quality control in industry.

“In the relatively new field of genomics, one role for mobile nanorobots may be in the process of extracting messenger RNA (mRNA – the template for protein synthesis). A robot could be designed to enter a specific cell and bind to the mRNA, enabling it to be removed for subsequent molecular analysis.”

Nanopositioning systems, nanomanipulators, end effectors, vision sensors, force microsensors and embedded control systems have been investigated for several years by some of the ROBOSEM participants – although none was previously incorporated into a SEM workstation.

Dissemination of the new results will be supported by the whole consortium. The tactile and force sensors will have a broad range of potential applications in the micro world, which Poland’s Institute of Electron Technology and the German Nanoscale Technologies expect to see exploited within two years of the project’s completion.

With a targeted five-year timeframe, Medplant Genetics in Spain intends to refine the capabilities of the system for extraction of mRNA from tissue cells. This will open opportunities for applications in hospitals and the pharmaceuticals/biotechnology sectors. The University Hospital of Navarra will also pursue nanorobotic handling of cells in the field of cancer diagnosis.

The Robotiker Foundation (Spain) and CSEM, the Swiss centre for electronics and microtechnology, will promote new companies dedicated to selling whole systems and promoting micro-/nano-handling services, while major electron microscope manufacturers not directly involved are already expressing serious interest in using its outcomes.

Enhancing operations and quality of life

“Nanorobots will take over demanding tasks that put a high stress on human dexterity and perception – or may even be beyond man’s unaided capability,” concludes Professor Fatikow. “With user-friendly control, they will improve operators’ working conditions and eliminate the need for extensive training or the recruitment of new specialists. At the same time, we are contributing to an enhanced quality of life for all European citizens, by paving the way for new products that cannot be fabricated using today’s methods.”

Posted 13th October 2003

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