Non-Mechanical Bubble Microbots

Tiny bubble "robots" built of bubbles and powered by lasers? We'll get to the tiny Fantastic Voyage Proteus vessels cruising my bloodstream keeping me healthy someday.


(Optically controlled microbubble robots)

To get the bubble robots to move around in this saline solution, a 400 mW 980nm (that's infrared) laser is shone through the bubble onto the heat-absorbing surface of the working area. The fluid that the bubbles are in tries to move from the hot area where the laser is pointing towards the colder side of the bubble, and this fluid flow pushes the bubble towards the hot area. Moving the laser to different sides of the bubble gives you complete 360 degree steering, and since the velocity of the bubble is proportional to the intensity of the laser, you can go as slow as you want or as fast as about 4 mm/s. This level of control allows for very fine manipulation of small objects, and the picture below shows how a bubble robot has pushed glass beads around to form the letters "UH" (for University of Hawaii, of course).

Besides being able to create as many robots as you want of differing sizes out of absolutely nothing (robot construction just involves a fine-tipped syringe full of air), the laser-controlled bubbles have another big advantage over more common microbots in that it's possible to control many different bubbles independently using separate lasers or light patterns from a digital projector. With magnetically steered microbots, they all like to go wherever the magnetic field points them as one big herd, but the bubbles don't have that problem, since each just needs its own independent spot of light to follow around.

Via IEEE Spectrum.

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