Shape-shifting Molecular Robots

A research group at Tohoku University and Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has developed a molecular robot consisting of biomolecules, such as DNA and protein. The molecular robot was developed by integrating molecular machines into an artificial cell membrane. It can start and stop its shape-changing function in response to a specific DNA signal.

This is the first time that a molecular robotic system has been able to recognize signals and control its shape-changing function. What this means is that molecular robots could, in the near future, function in a way similar to living organisms.

Using sophisticated biomolecules such as DNA and proteins, living organisms perform important functions. For example, white blood cells can chase bacteria by sensing chemical signals and migrating toward the target. In the field of chemistry and synthetic biology, elemental technologies for making various molecular machines, such as sensors, processors and actuators, are created using biomolecules. A molecular robot is an artificial molecular system that is built by integrating molecular machines. The researchers believe that realization of such a system could lead to a significant breakthrough – a bio-inspired robot designed on a molecular basis.

molecular robot

The molecular robot developed by the research group is extremely small – about one millionth of a meter – similar in size to human cells. It consists of a molecular actuator, composed of protein, and a molecular clutch, composed of DNA. The shape of the robot’s body (artificial cell membrane) can be changed by the actuator, while the transmission of the force generated by the actuator can be controlled by the molecular clutch. The research group demonstrated through experiments that the molecular robot could start and stop the shape-changing behavior in response to a specific DNA signal.

The findings were published in Science Robotics.


Electric Car: Safer, Cheaper Rechargeable Batteries

By chemically modifying and pulverizing a promising group of compounds, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have potentially brought safer, solid-state rechargeable batteries two steps closer to reality.

sodiumChunks of this sodium-based compound (Na2B12H12) (left) would function well in a battery only at elevated temperatures, but when they are milled into far smaller pieces (right), they can potentially perform even in extreme cold, making them even more promising as the basis for safer, cheaper rechargeables.

These compounds are stable solid materials that would not pose the risks of leaking or catching fire typical of traditional liquid battery ingredients and are made from commonly available substances. Since discovering their properties in 2014, a team led by NIST scientists has sought to enhance the compounds’ performance further in two key ways: Increasing their current-carrying capacity and ensuring that they can operate in a sufficiently wide temperature range to be useful in real-world environments.

Considerable advances have now been made on both fronts, according to Terrence Udovic of the NIST Center for Neutron Research, whose team has published a pair of scientific papers that detail each improvement.  The first advance came when the team found that the original compounds — made primarily of hydrogen, boron and either lithium or sodium — were even better at carrying current with a slight change to their chemical makeup. Replacing one of the boron atoms with carbon improved their ability to conduct charged particles, or ions, which are what carry electricity inside a battery. As the team reported in February in their first paper, the switch made the compounds about 10 times better at conducting.

But perhaps more important was clearing the temperature hurdle. The compounds conducted ions well enough to operate in a battery — as long as it was in an environment typically hotter than boiling water. Unfortunately, there’s not much of a market for such high-temperature batteries, and by the time they cooled to room temperature, the materials’ favorable chemical structure often changed to a less conductive form, decreasing their performance substantially. One solution turned out to be crushing the compounds’ particles into a fine powder.

This approach can remove worries about whether batteries incorporating these types of materials will perform as expected even on the coldest winter day,” said Udovic, whose collaborators on the most recent paper include scientists from Japan’s Tohoku University, the University of Maryland and Sandia National Laboratories. “We are currently exploring their use in next-generation batteries, and in the process we hope to convince people of their great potential.”


Nano Light Consumes Hundred Times Less Than A LED

Scientists from Tohoku University in Japan have developed a new type of energy-efficient flat light source based on carbon nanotubes with very low power consumption of around 0.1 Watt for every hour‘s operation — about a hundred times lower than that of an LED. Electronics based on carbon, especially carbon nanotubes (CNTs), are emerging as successors to silicon for making semiconductor materials, And they may enable a new generation of brighter, low-power, low-cost lighting devices that could challenge the dominance of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in the future and help meet society’s ever-escalating demand for greener bulbs.
nanolightPlane-lighting homogeneity image of a planar light source device through a neutral density filter
Our simple ‘diode’ panel could obtain high brightness efficiency of 60 Lumen per Watt, which holds excellent potential for a lighting device with low power consumption,” said Norihiro Shimoi, the lead researcher and an associate professor of environmental studies at the Tohoku University. “We have found that a cathode with highly crystalline single-walled carbon nanotubes and an anode with the improved phosphor screen in our diode structure obtained no flicker field emission current and good brightness homogeneity,” Shimoi said.