Scientists have designed a tiny robot-fish that is designed and programmed to remove microplastics from seas and oceans by swimming around and adsorbing them on its soft, flexible, self-healing body.
Microplastics are billions of tiny plastic particles which fragment from the bigger plastic things used every day such as water bottles, milk covers, car tyres and synthetic T-shirts. They are one of the 21st century’s biggest environmental problems because once they are dispersed into the environment through the breakdown of larger plastics they are very hard to get rid of, making their way into drinking water, produce, and food, harming the environment and animal and human health.
The robo-fish is 13mm long, and consists of light laser system in its tail, swims and flaps around at almost 30mm a second, similar to the speed at which plankton drift around in moving water.
This made them a robo-fish that is stretchy, flexible to twist, and even able to pull up to 5kg in weight, according to the study. Most importantly, the bionic fish can adsorb nearby free-floating bits of microplastics because the organic dyes, antibiotics, and heavy metals in the microplastics have strong chemical bonds and electrostatic interactions with the fish’s materials. That makes them cling on to its surface, so the fish can collect and remove microplastics from the water. “After the robot collects the microplastics in the water, the researchers can further analyse the composition and physiological toxicity of the microplastics,” said Wang.
The newly created material also seems to have regenerative abilities, said Wang, who specialises in the development of self-healing materials. So the robot fish can heal itself to 89% of its ability and continue adsorbing even in the case it experiences some damage or cutting – which could happen often if it goes hunting for pollutants in rough waters.
“But there’s a big distinction between an invention and an innovation,” Demokritou said. “Invention is something that nobody has thought about yet. Right? But innovation is something that will change people’s lives, because it makes it to commercialisation, and it can be scaled.”