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As William Gibson once put it, "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed", science has been blurring the boundaries between the present and the future for quite some time. In case you ever need to prove this statement to someone, take this: scientists at The University of Manchester have built the first of its kind "molecular robot" that is capable of carrying out a set of simple tasks including building other molecules.


The minute robots can be programmed to perform chemical tasks such as moving and building molecular objects, by utilizing a tiny robotic arm. Each individual molecular robot is capable of operating at a molecular level, meaning they are small enough to be able to manipulate a single molecule. As for their composition, a single robot of these consists of only 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms. To put its size into perspective, if you pile a billion billion of these robots on top of each other, your molecular "garage" of robots would still be about the same size as a grain of salt!

The robots carry out chemical tasks by receiving instructions in the form of a chemical input  that is programmed by scientists. The research, which was published in Nature on septemeber 21 2017, will offer unlimited possibilities to scientists and engineers alike, as it will start the ball rolling for building molecular factories and assembly lines.

"All matter is made up of atoms and these are the basic building blocks that form molecules. 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.", explains professor David Leigh, the study's lead scientist.

Molecular robotics is the final step towards "nanofying" machinery. Professor David Leigh thinks that, within 10 to 20 years, molecular factories will start deploying these tiny robots to mass produce commercial materials and even drugs.

The advantages of deploying molecular robots are huge. For instance, having an assembly line that is so small can massively reduce the demand for materials, accelerate and enhance drug discovery, dramatically reduce power consumption and rapidly boost the scaling down of other products, notes the study's lead researcher.

Even though building and using such tiny robots sounds very complicated, the techniques used by scientists to create and command them are actually quite simple since they are all based on simple chemical reactions. The processes used to build and operate these nano-machines are the same processes scientists use to create medicines and plastics by combining simple chemical building blocks. In other words, scientists use chemistry to make these tiny robots and then they use chemistry again to command them. Sounds easy, right?
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