June 27, 2022 – You have likely ingested microplastic today. They’re in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and many of the foods we eat, and scientists say human exposure is just about impossible to avoid at this point.
Help may be on the way in the form of a newly created “soft robotics” fish designed to grab up all this polymer pollution, at least from the ocean. At 13 millimeters (about a half-inch) long, the robo-fish is designed to resemble the real thing. Along with its plastic-luring ability, it is self-powered and can navigate complex aquatic environments with the help of near-infrared laser technology (NIR).
Its body is stretchy, flexible, and nimble, just like the real deal. By pointing a NIR laser at its tail, the scientists can coax the fish robot’s fins to change shape and propel its minnow-like body in a swim-like motion.
“Microplastic pollution in water is a major problem faced by human beings,” the Chinese scientists say in their Nano Lettersresearch paper, “[They] can absorb heavy metals, toxic organic contaminants, and pathogens.”
If damaged while on the move, no problem. The robo-fish can repair itself with 89% efficiency and continue its relentless pursuit of plastics. To test the mechanical creature’s self-healing talents, the researchers sliced into the robot’s covering and let it recover at room temperature. The bot was restored to its original state, with scarring at the damage site almost disappearing, thanks to layers of nanosheet inspired by the pearly deposit on the inside of many mussels and clams commonly referred to as nacre or mother-of-pearl, the researchers say.
“Our nacre-like gradient nanostructure imparts not only strength and toughness, but also functionality to the material,” the scientists noted.
Research has found there are around 24.4 trillion pieces of microscopic plastic particles in the upper oceans, and this is likely to be an underestimate, new research finds. Recently, studies have detected nano plastic particles in the lungs and bloodstream of humans. In fact, microscopic bits of plastic have most likely taken up residence in all of the major filtering organs, autopsy studies on cadavers suggest. Although the risk of the miniscule pollutants’ presence in the body is unclear, scientists are exploring what it means for our health.
Using nature as their muse, the robo-fish researchers say they hope the durable aquatic imposters will someday help remove microplastics from the environment.
“I think nanotechnology holds great promise for trace adsorption, collection, and detection of pollutants,” lead study author Yuyan Wang told The Guardian. “It is of great significance to develop a robot to accurately collect and sample detrimental microplastic pollutants from the aquatic environment.”