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Scientists invent robot fish that swims around hoovering up microplastics

It measures just half an inch from nose to tail.

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By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

A robot fish that swims around quickly hoovering up microplastics has been created by scientists.

The tiny machine 'wiggles' its body and 'flaps' its fins just like the real thing. It was inspired by mother-of-pearl - and could help save the planet.

It measures just half an inch from nose to tail. Rapidly turning a near-infrared light laser on and off at the tail propels it forward.

In experiments, the robot moved nearly three body lengths per second - a record for soft marine robots. It reached the same speed as active phytoplankton.

The untethered device repeatedly adsorbed nearby polystyrene microplastics and transported them elsewhere.

It could also heal itself after being cut - still maintaining its ability to pick up the debris.

Its durability and speed make it ideal for monitoring microplastics and other pollutants in harsh aquatic environments.

Project leader Professor Xinxing Zhang, of Sichuan University, China, said: "The proof-of-concept robot is demonstrated to emphasize its maximum swimming speed of 2.67 body length per second.

"Its speed is comparable to that of plankton - representing the outperformance of most artificial soft robots.

"Furthermore, the robot can stably absorb pollutants and recover its robustness and functionality even when damaged."

Microplastics are found nearly everywhere on Earth - and can be harmful to animals if ingested.

They are notoriously difficult to remove from the environment - especially once settled into nooks and crannies at the bottom of rivers, streams, lakes or oceans.

Now, researchers in ACS’ Nano Letters have created a light-activated fish robot that “swims” around quickly, picking up and removing microplastics from the environment.

Traditional materials used for soft robots are hydrogels and elastomers - which are easily damaged in water.

plastic bottles recycle background concept, picking up garbage plastic bottles for recycling concept
(Photo by Sakura Image Inc vis Shutterstock)

But mother-of-pearl, also known as nacre, is strong and flexible. It is found on the inside of clam shells.

It is made up of layers that have a microscopic gradient - one side with lots of calcium carbonate composites and the other with a silk protein filler.

Prof Zhang and colleagues developed a similar structure to make the durable and bendable material for their fish.

The researchers first made nanosheets from a cocktail of chemicals including graphene - the toughest material on Earth.

Solutions were incorporated with different concentrations into polyurethane latex mixtures.

A layer-by-layer assembly method formed an ordered concentration gradient - just like mother-of-pearl. The Chinese team formed the robot out of the new material.

Prof Zhang added: "This study breaks the mutual exclusivity of functional execution and fast locomotions.

"We anticipate our nanostructural design will offer an effective extended path to other integrated robots that required multifunction integration."

The robot is described in the American Chemical Society's journal Nano Letters.

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