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Scientists create incredible tiny ‘robots’ that could suck harmful contaminants from rivers: ‘Remarkable removal efficiency’

Scientists create incredible tiny ‘robots’ that could suck harmful contaminants from rivers: ‘Remarkable removal efficiency’


The ever-growing issue of plastic pollution has worsened, as its disintegration into microplastic and nanoplastic particles in bodies of water has compounded the difficulty of cleanup efforts. 

However, researchers from the Czech Republic’s Brno University of Technology and Mendel University have collaborated to create biohybrid microrobots that could solve this problem without further damaging aquatic habitats.

“The new robots we created, dubbed magnetic algae robots, consist of a combination of algae and environmentally friendly magnetic nanoparticles,” Xia Peng, co-author of the paper, told Phys.org.

According to the study, published in October, the scientists partially covered negatively charged algae cells with oppositely charged iron (II, III) oxide particles to give the robot magnetic properties. 

“These robots operate under the influence of an external magnetic field, enabling precise control over their movement,” Peng said. “… This positive-negative interaction facilitates electrostatic attraction, thereby promoting the targeted capture and removal of micro/nano plastics by the MARs.”

As a result, Peng said the microrobots demonstrated “remarkable removal efficiency,” taking out 92% of nanoplastics (particles less than 1000 nanometers in size) and 70% of microplastics (less than 5 millimeters in size) in samples of rainwater, tap water, and lake water. It also was effective for five cycles, maintaining around an 80% removal rate for nanoplastics and approximately 54% for microplastics.

That reusability, paired with its low-cost, eco-friendly structure, makes MARs a sustainable option for cleaning marine habitats. 

The timing could not have been better, as the Plastic Soup Foundation reported there were at least 171 trillion pieces of microplastic in the ocean in 2019, which amounted to 2.5 million tons. However, the organization believed that figure could be an underestimation — the International Union for Conservation of Nature said that at least 14 million tons of plastic enter the ocean annually.

It’s a crisis that requires urgent action and has resulted in creative solutions such as an artificial super-protein derived from a strawberry anemone that eats microplastics and nanoplastics and a sponge that can soak up the minuscule pollution.

“In the future, they could serve as a promising tool for actively removing plastic pollution from water bodies, contributing to environmental remediation efforts, and mitigating the impact of plastic waste on aquatic ecosystems,” Peng said. “Our robots could potentially reduce the need for more resource-intensive and expensive strategies currently employed for plastic waste removal.”

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