Nano robotics team is pioneering new medical technology

    International nanorobotics competition puts engineering students in spotlight

    By Richard Cairney on May 3, 2013

    Edmonton—A team of engineering students is putting a twist on robotics, developing a nano-scale robotics system that could lead to new medical therapies.

    The U of A Nanorobotics Team is heading to the International Mobile Micro/nanorobotics Competition in Karlsruhe, Germany, to put their nanobot system up against student teams from around the world as part of the ICRA Robot Challenges at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

    In less than a year, the U of A team has assembled a working system that manipulates nano-scale ‘robots’. The team uses magnets to manipulate a droplet filled with iron oxide nanoparticles. Barely visible to the naked eye, the droplet measures 400-500 micrometres (one micrometer = 1/1,000 of a metre).

    Using a joystick, team members control the robot, making it travel along a specific route, navigate an obstacle course or to push micro-sized objects from one point to another.

    The challenge is simple in concept but highly technical and challenging to execute: the team first injects a water droplet with iron oxide nanoparticles into into oil. The droplet holds its shape because it is encased in a surfactant—a soap-like formula that repels water on one side and attracts water on the other.

    “It’s like a capsule,” said team member Yang Gao, who is working on her master’s degree in chemical engineering. “It’s a vehicle for the nanoparticles.”

    The iron-filled droplet is placed in a playing ‘field’ measuring 2 x 3 millimetres. The team uses four magnets mounted each side of the rectangular field to move the droplet in a figure-8, manoeuvring it through four gates built into the field.

    “We use the magnets to pull the droplet,” explains electrical engineering PhD student Remko van den Hurk.

    In a second challenge, the team will be required to use the droplet as a bulldozer of sorts, to arrange micro-scale objects that measure 200 x 300 micrometres into a particular order on an even smaller playing field.

    The competition is a fun way of demonstrating technological advances but moving nano-sized droplets has some serious potential applications.

    “Part of the concept is the possibility of using this inside the human body,” said van den Hurk.

    “It could be used as a targeted drug-delivery system,” said Gao.

    Some cancer therapies use certain metals that are positioned near a tumour then irradiated, causing damage to cancerous cells nearby, van den Hurk says. “But using a nano robot is another option.”

    Students on the team are grateful to have leading-edge equipment and expert advice available to them at the U of A’s nano-fab lab, based in the Faculty of Engineering.

    The U of A nanoFAB is an open access 10,000 sq. ft. class 10 cleanroom, providing access to a suite of micromachining and nanofabrication tools valued at over $25 million. The nanoFAB provides a unique research environment for people to work on the development of new devices, such as sensors and micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS), that are typically smaller than the width of a human hair. Through the use of the unique capabilities offered in the nanoFAB, the nano Robotics group has been able to develop the playing surface required for the competition. 

    And they each say the experience is enhancing their education. Undergraduate materials engineering student Abishek Nage, who just completed his final exams and graduates this spring, says the experience has added an extra dimension to his degree.

    “I’m really passionate about nanorobotics and working at the micro level,” he said. While he could have been studying for finals while working on the team’s project, Nage says working on nanorobotics “is pretty much like studying” anyways.

    “I learned more by being here,” he said. “I put a tangible form to what I learned in the courses I took It helped me a lot.”