Marc Miskin, assistant professor of electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, developed the nanofabrication techniques with his colleagues professors Itai Cohen and Paul McEuen and researcher Alejandro Cortese during postdoctoral research at Cornell University. Over the course of the past several years, they developed a method of turning a four-inch specialised silicon wafer into a million tiny robots in just weeks, as demonstrated in a remarkable video clip in which they can be seen moving around under a microscope. Professor Miskin told Express.co.uk: “The age of nanotechnology is now to some extent here – this is the real deal.
“The silicon conductor industry has been miniaturising everything and this is the next step.”
As a result, he and his colleagues could now manipulate matter at the molecular level, and using the sophisticated tools at his disposal, it takes Marc between two and three weeks to make one million miniature automatons.
Each individual robot has four legs, which are just 100 atoms thick, and which are formed from a bilayer of platinum and titanium, or alternately, graphene.
The researchers shine a laser on one of a robot’s solar cells to power it.
This causes the platinum in the leg to expand, while the titanium remains rigid in turn, causing the limb to bend.
The robot’s gait is generated because each solar cell causes the alternate contraction or relaxing of the front or back legs.
Prof Miskin added: “Each one is roughly three to five times the size of a human hair.
“You can fit one million of them on a four-inch silicon wafer. It’s pretty incredible.
“The legs are super strong. Each robot carries a body that’s 1,000 times thicker and weighs roughly 8,000 times more than each leg.”
As a scientists specialising in electrical engineering, Mr Miskin will not be directly responsible for developing possible applications for the new technology – but given they can be injected using a syringe, the possible implications for future surgical techniques are obvious.
For example, they could be used to deliver drugs or map the human brain, he said.
He also suggested billionaire space flight entrepreneur Elon Musk – currently plotting a colony on Mars – might be interested in them, saying: “It’s been suggested the big problem with robots is their size, and that they should be made really small instead, which could work for space exploration.”
There were also possible benefits from the point of view of renewable energy, Prof, Miskin said.
Robots could be used as “caretakers” for lithium batteries to prevent them going flat, he explained, greatly extending their lives as a result.
He said: “The really exciting thing is we are not pushing the limits of this at all yet – we can really push this stuff further.
“Fifty years ago computers were the size of a table top – now we can get 100 million of these robots on one.”