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Will plastic-eating robo-fishes save our oceans?

Chinese researchers have designed biocompatible robots resembling tiny fishes that are able to ingest microplastics


Microplastics are an increasingly common problem that is polluting the oceans worldwide and endangering entire ecosystems, our organisms included.

It is easy to guess what we are talking about: microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic material, usually less than 5 millimeters in size, which fall in two main categories, primary and secondary.

Too much plastic

Primary plastics are intentionally manufactured to be added to specific products, such as polymers in cosmetics, or in synthetic materials in clothes, furniture or tires; secondary plastics are shreds and crumbs of bottles, bags, packages and other objects dispersed in the environment and not properly disposed of.

Human exposure to microplastics can occur in a variety of ways: through food – it has been estimated that a figure between 15 and 20% of the marine species we eat is contaminated – through inhalation or through dermal absorption. Regardless of how we come into contact with them, microplastics are harmful: their porous structure can attract heavy metals and cancer-causing substances, making then even more toxic than ordinary plastic.

Robotic fishes to clean up the aquatic environment

A team of Chinese scientists from Sichuan University, led by dr. Xinxing Zhang, has developed a project that could help solve the problem of micro-plastic pollution.

They are miniaturized robots just 1.3 cm in size, resembling tiny fish, made of a biocompatible material inspired by the mother-of-pearl of seashells. This makes the micro-robots flexible, durable and unharmful if ingested by other marine species.

They are activated by light, through short laser pulses, and are able to move directionally. This is a very important feature which avoids possible crashes into other fish or ships. In addition, the material is capable of self-repair if damaged, keeping its ability to capture pollutants intact.

Due to their flexibility and small size, these small fish-robots are already able to reach the deepest and most hostile spaces of the seabed, removing microplastics even in the most inaccessible places.

Small robots, huge potential

Chinese researchers said the initial goal of these micro-robots is to collect microplastics to provide information about the level of pollution. But these tiny fish could also be used in many other areas such as in biomedical or hazardous operations, as they could be injected into the body to eliminate diseases or in remote underwater caves. 

The possible applications are many and there is still much to discover and experiment with.

Maker Faire Rome – The European Edition has been committed since its very first editions to make innovation accessible and usable to all, with the aim of not leaving anyone behind. Its blog is always updated and full of opportunities and inspiration for makers, makers, startups, SMEs and all the curious ones who wish to enrich their knowledge and expand their business, in Italy and abroad.

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