Plant-based materials are the building blocks for gentle medical microbiomes

A team of University of Waterloo researchers has developed smart, advanced materials that could be the building blocks for future generations of soft medical microbes.

These tiny robots have the potential to perform minimally invasive medical procedures such as biopsy, cell and tissue transport. They can move through confined and flooded environments such as the human body and deliver soft and light cargo such as cells or tissues to the target site.

The tiny soft robots are a maximum of one centimeter in length and are bio-compatible and non-toxic. The robots are made of advanced hydrogel composites containing stable cellulose nanoparticles derived from plants.

The research, led by Hemat Shasavan, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, depicts a holistic approach to the design, assembly, fabrication and manipulation of microrobots. The hydrogel used in this work changes its shape when exposed to external chemical stimuli. The ability to orient cellulose nanoparticles enables researchers to program such shape-shifting, which is critical to developing functional soft robots.

In my research group, we combine the old and the new. We introduce emerging microrobots by improving traditional soft materials such as hydrogels, liquid crystals, and colloids.”

Shasavan, Director, Smart Materials for Advanced Robotic Technologies (Smart-Lab)

Another unique element of this advanced smart object is that it is self-healing, which allows for a wide range of programming in the form of robots. Researchers can cut the material and glue it back together without using glue or other adhesives to create different shapes for different procedures.

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The material can be further modified with a magnet that facilitates the movement of soft robots through the human body. As evidence of how the robot would move in the body, the tiny robot was moved through a maze by researchers who controlled its movement using a magnetic field.

„Chemical engineers play an important role in pushing the boundaries of medical microbial research,” Shasavan said. „Interestingly, tackling many of the grand challenges in microbiology requires skills and knowledge from chemical engineers including heat and mass transfer, fluid dynamics, reaction engineering, polymers, soft materials science and biochemical systems. Therefore, we are uniquely positioned to introduce innovative ways in this emerging field.” .

The next step in this research is scaling the robot down to submillimeter sizes.

Shasavan’s research team collaborated with Waterloo’s Tsasu Mekonen, professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Professor Shirley Tang, Associate Dean of Science (Research), and Amirreza Agakani, Professor at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. They published their results last month in Nature Communications.

Professor Hemat Shasavan designs smart programmable soft robots

Image credit: University of Waterloo

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