This Bacteria-Powered Microrobot Navigates via Electric Fields


Engineers from Drexel University have devised a bacteria-powered microrobot that can be steered through fluids with applied electric fields. Imagine a tiny, tiny robotic system covered over by even tinier biomolecular arms (flagella) working cooperatively as a „bacterial surface“ to move the biobot from place to place, and then, just as importantly, imagine an algorithm that can steer the thing. The group’s work is described in the current IEEE Transactions on Robotics.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

The bacteria-powered microrobot (BPM) idea is in itself not new. Researchers are chasing after the technology from many different angles, while biomedical engineers from the same Drexel lab had demonstrated an earlier version of this same concept in 2014, albeit in a much simpler environment.

The idea behind the bot is intuitive enough, at least in theory. Take an inorganic substrate—in this case an epoxy known as SU-8 that’s useful for building tiny machine components—and blot it with bacteria swarming on an agar plate. The bacteria adhere naturally the the SU-8 and that’s basically it.

The motion comes from the twisting swimming motions of the bacteria’s wispy appendages, or, in the paper’s words: „The hydrodynamic force is generated by the helical motion created by the bundling of many rotating flagella.“ This is how bacteria get around generally, via a collection of tiny biological propellers. It’s pretty neat.

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