Scientists have designed a small robotic fish that is programmed to remove microplastics from the sea and ocean by swimming around and adsorbing it on its soft, flexible, self-healing body.
Microplastics are billions of tiny plastic particles that separate from the larger plastic items used on a daily basis such as water bottles, car tires and synthetic T-shirts. They are one of the biggest environmental problems of the 21st century, because when they disperse into the environment through the decomposition of larger plastics, they are very difficult to get rid of, entering drinking water, products and food, harming the environment and animals. and human health.
“It is important to develop a robot for the precise collection and sampling of harmful microplastic pollutants from the aquatic environment,” said Yujan Wang, a researcher at the Sichuan University Polymer Research Institute and one of the study’s lead authors. Her team’s new discovery is described in a research paper in the journal Nano Letters. “According to our information, this is the first example of such soft robots.
Researchers from the University of Sichuan have discovered an innovative solution to monitor these pollutants when it comes to water contamination: designing a small self-propelled robo-fish that can swim around, attach to free-floating microplastics and repair itself if cut or damaged while was on an expedition.
The robo-fish is only 13 mm long, and thanks to the light laser system in the tail, it swims and swings almost 30 mm per second, similar to the speed at which plankton moves in moving water.
Researchers have created robots from materials inspired by elements that thrive in the sea: mother-of-pearl, also known as mother-of-pearl, which is the inner lining of shells. The team created a mother-of-pearl material by layering different microscopic sheets of molecules according to a specific chemical gradient of mother-of-pearl.
This made them a robo-fish that is stretchable, flexible to twisting, and even able to pull up to 5 kg in weight, according to the study. Most importantly, bionic fish can adsorb nearby free-floating parts of microplastics because organic dyes, antibiotics, and heavy metals in microplastics have strong chemical bonds and electrostatic interactions with fish materials. This makes them cling to its surface so that fish can collect and remove microplastics from the water. “After the robot collects microplastics in water, researchers can further analyze the composition and physiological toxicity of microplastics,” Wang said.
In addition, the newly created material also appears to have regenerative abilities, said Wang, who specializes in developing self-healing materials. Thus, the robot fish can heal up to 89% of its ability on its own and continue to adsorb even if it experiences some damage or cuts – which could often happen if it goes hunting for pollutants in turbulent waters.
This is just proof of the concept, Wang notes, and much more research is needed – especially on how this could be applied in the real world. For example, the soft robot currently only works on water surfaces, so Wang’s team will soon be working on functionally more complex robo-fish that can go deeper underwater. However, this bionic design could offer a launch platform for other similar projects, Wang said. “I think nanotechnology has great promise for trace adsorption, collection and detection of pollutants, improving intervention efficiency while reducing operating costs.
Indeed, nanotechnology will be one of the most important players in the fight against microplastics, says Philip Democritu, director of the Center for Research in Nanoscience and Advanced Materials at Rutgers University, who was not involved in the study.
Democritus’ lab is also focusing on using nanotechnology to get rid of microplastics from the planet – but instead of cleaning it up, they are working to replace it. This week, in the journal Nature Food, he announced the discovery of a new plant-based spray coating that can serve as an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic food wrappers. Their case study showed that this starch-based fiber spray can defend against pathogens and protect against transport damage just as well, if not better, than current plastic packaging options.
“The motto for the last 40 to 50 years for the chemical industry is: let’s make chemicals, let’s make materials, put them there and then clean up the mess 20 or 30 years later,” he told Democritus. “It’s not a sustainable model. So can we synthesize safer design materials? Can we get materials from food waste as part of the circular economy and turn them into useful materials that we can use to solve this problem? ”
This is a low-hanging fruit for nanotechnology, he told Democritus, and as research into materials gets better, so will the multidirectional approach to replacing plastic in our daily lives and filtering out its remnants of microplastics from the environment.
“But there is a big difference between invention and innovation,” he told Democritus. “The discovery is something that no one has thought about yet. Right? But innovation is something that will change people’s lives, because it leads to commercialization and can be expanded. “
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