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New remote-controlled microrobots for medical operations

22.07.16 - Scientists at EPFL and ETHZ have developed a new method for building microrobots that could be used in the body to deliver drugs and perform other medical operations.

For the past few years, scientists around the world have been studying ways to use miniature robots to better treat a variety of diseases. The robots are designed to enter the human body, where they can deliver drugs at specific locations or perform precise operations like clearing clogged-up arteries. By replacing invasive, often complicated surgery, they could optimize medicine.

EPFL scientist Selman Sakar teamed up with Hen-Wei Huang and Bradley Nelson at ETHZ to develop a simple and versatile method for building such bio-inspired robots and equipping them with advanced features. They also created a platform for testing several robot designs and studying different modes of locomotion. Their work, published in Nature Communications, produced complex reconfigurable microrobots that can be manufactured with high throughput. They built an integrated manipulation platform that can remotely control the robots’ mobility with electromagnetic fields, and cause them to shape-shift using heat.

A robot that looks and moves like a bacterium
Unlike conventional robots, these microrobots are soft, flexible, and motor-less. They are made of a biocompatible hydrogel and magnetic nanoparticles. These nanoparticles have two functions. They give the microrobots their shape during the manufacturing process, and make them move and swim when an electromagnetic field is applied.

Building one of these microrobots involves several steps. First, the nanoparticles are placed inside layers of a biocompatible hydrogel. Then an electromagnetic field is applied to orientate the nanoparticles at different parts of the robot, followed by a polymerization step to “solidify” the hydrogel. After this, the robot is placed in water where it folds in specific ways depending on the orientation of the nanoparticles inside the gel, to form the final overall 3D architecture of the microrobot.

Once the final shape is achieved, an electromagnetic field is used to make the robot swim. Then, when heated, the robot changes shape and “unfolds”. This fabrication approach allowed the researchers to build microrobots that mimic the bacterium that causes African trypanosomiasis, otherwise known as sleeping sickness. This particular bacterium uses a flagellum for propulsion, but hides it away once inside a person’s bloodstream as a survival mechanism.

The researchers tested different microrobot designs to come up with one that imitates this behavior. The prototype robot presented in this work has a bacterium-like flagellum that enables it to swim. When heated with a laser, the flagellum wraps around the robot’s body and is “hidden”.

A better understanding of how bacteria behave
“We show that both a bacterium’s body and its flagellum play an important role in its movement,” said Sakar. “Our new production method lets us test an array of shapes and combinations to obtain the best motion capability for a given task. Our research also provides valuable insight into how bacteria move inside the human body and adapt to changes in their microenvironment.”

For now, the microrobots are still in development. “There are many factors we have to take into account,” says Sakar. “For instance, we have to make sure that the microrobots won’t cause any side-effects in patients.”

The other scientists involved in this work are Andrew Petruska and Salvador Pane.

Reference: Soft micromachines with programmable motility and morphology

EPFL news
3rd International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Ageing Well and e-Health – ICT4AWE 2017

Conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Ageing Well and e-Health

International Zero Emission Bus Conference & Fuel Cell Bus Workshop

The EU-funded CHIC project is one of the main supporters of the International Zero Emission Bus Conference and Fuel Cell Bus Workshop that will take place in London, UK, from 30 November to 1 December 2016.

PERICLES project conference

The EU-funded PERICLES project is organising a conference entitled; ‘Acting on Change: New Approaches and Future Practices in Digital Preservation’ that will take place in London, UK, from 30 November to 1 December 2016.

A plasma engine for exploring space

20.07.16 - Summer series on student projects (3) – For his Master’s degree in physics, Félicien Filleul worked on a plasma-fueled propulsion system for small satellites and space probes.

The machine starts up. A light gradually appears through the little window on top. As it gains in intensity, the light goes from a hazy, pale pink to purplish-blue. This is plasma, a substance that could be used in the future to control the movement of small satellites and space probes.

This machine is part of Félicien Filleul’s Master’s project. A 26-year-old physics student at EPFL, Filleul also did a Minor in Space Technologies. Through this project, which he did at the Swiss Plasma Center in collaboration with the Space Engineering Center (eSpace), Filleul contributed to the effort to develop plasma-fueled satellite propulsion engines. Research on this groundbreaking technology has been ongoing for around 10 years.

“Plasma engines could work really well with small satellites like Cubsats, which are sent into orbit without any way to control or adjust how they move,” said Filleul. So the objective is to develop a system of low-power but steady thrusters that are highly precise and consume little energy. Scientists could use them to maintain or correct the satellites’ orbit or orientation, or to set up a constellation of Cubsats, in which several of these small satellites are networked for the needs of individual missions.

Particle soup
“Plasma is perfect for this type of propulsion,” said Filleul. “We make it out of xenon gas, a single gram of which provides 10 times more acceleration than the same quantity of traditional fuels.”

Plasma is neither solid, liquid nor gas – it is the fourth state of matter. While less familiar than the other three states of matter, plasma is used in everyday items such as neon signs and television screens. It is very common in the universe and can be found in the sun and other stars.

Plasma is made by heating xenon in a vacuum at temperatures so high that the electrons are pulled out of their orbit around the nucleus. They come to form a ‘soup’ of highly charged particles. More plasma can be generated by sending a helicon-type electromagnetic wave – which spreads as it turns like a corkscrew – through the soup. Scientists can freely adjust the substance’s density by controlling the wave’s intensity.

Heading for Mercury
Filleul’s project focused on the antenna used to generate the helicon wave. The antenna, designed and developed at EPFL by the startup Helyssen, lends itself to plasma engines that are both small and light. And those are two major concerns in the area of space technology. “My job was to test the antenna with different densities and qualities of plasma, in order to find the ones that will work best in space,” said Filleul.

But the fun doesn’t stop there for Filleul. Next year, he will work at the European Space Agency (ESA) on a plasma-propulsion system for the BepiColombo mission, which in 2018 will launch two probes headed for the planet Mercury.

EPFL news
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