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Plant-based materials could revolutionize medical microrobots

A team of scientists from the University of Waterloo in Canada has successfully developed advanced, plant-based materials that lay the groundwork for a new generation of soft medical microrobots.

Plant-based robots

The tiny robots are designed to perform medical tasks such as biopsies and the transport of cells and tissues, in a manner that is minimally invasive. They can navigate through tight and fluid-filled environments, similar to the human body, and can precisely deliver delicate and light cargo, like cells or tissues, to a specific destination.

With a maximum length of one centimeter, these plant-based robots are biocompatible and non-toxic. They are crafted from sophisticated hydrogel composites that incorporate environmentally-friendly cellulose nanoparticles derived from plants.

Revolutionary microrobots 

Leading this groundbreaking research is Hamed Shahsavan, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Waterloo. The project represents a comprehensive approach to the design, synthesis, formation, and control of microrobots. 

The hydrogel utilized in this research has the ability to change its shape when it comes into contact with external chemical stimuli. Controlling the orientation of cellulose nanoparticles allows the researchers to program these shape changes, which is crucial for the creation of functional soft robots.

Innovative technology 

“In my research group, we are bridging the old and new,” said Shahsavan. “We introduce emerging microrobots by leveraging traditional soft matter like hydrogels, liquid crystals, and colloids.”

Another innovative aspect of this smart material is its self-healing capacity, which enables the programming of a wide range of robot shapes. The material can be cut and reattached without the need for glue or other adhesives, allowing for the formation of various shapes tailored to different medical procedures.

Magnetic properties 

Moreover, the material can be augmented with magnetic properties to aid in the movement of the soft robots within the human body. To showcase how the robot would maneuver through the body, the researchers demonstrated its movement through a maze using a magnetic field.

“Chemical engineers play a critical role in pushing the frontiers of medical microrobotics research,” Shahsavan explained.

“Interestingly, tackling the many grand challenges in microrobotics requires the skillset and knowledge chemical engineers possess, including heat and mass transfer, fluid mechanics, reaction engineering, polymers, soft matter science, and biochemical systems. So, we are uniquely positioned to introduce innovative avenues in this emerging field.”

The researchers’ next objective is to reduce the robot’s size to submillimeter dimensions.

More about plant-based materials

Plant-based materials have gained increasing importance due to their sustainable and renewable nature. These materials often have a reduced carbon footprint, utilize fewer resources in their production, and can be biodegradable, making them preferable for a range of applications as the world seeks more sustainable solutions.


These are derived from renewable sources like corn starch, potato starch, and sugarcane. They serve as an alternative to petroleum-based plastics and are used in packaging, agriculture, and consumer goods.


Used for thousands of years, hemp fibers can be utilized in textiles, papers, and building materials like “hempcrete”. The seeds can be processed into oil or used in foods.


A rapid-growing grass, bamboo is used in construction, furniture, textiles (like bamboo rayon), and even disposable items such as cutlery.


Found in the cell walls of plants, it’s the basis for materials like rayon, cellophane, and cellulose acetate. Cellulose-based textiles like Tencel (lyocell) are known for their softness and sustainability.


Harvested from the cork oak tree, this material is used in flooring, bulletin boards, and, most commonly, wine stoppers.

Mycelium leather

Derived from the root system of fungi, mycelium can be cultivated to create a leather-like material, which is biodegradable and can be used in fashion and upholstery.


A type of leather alternative derived from the fibers of pineapple leaves. It’s used in fashion, accessories, and upholstery.


This plant’s fibers can be used to produce linen, a textile known for its durability and comfort. Flax seeds are also a nutritional food source.


A gelatinous substance derived from red algae, it’s used in culinary applications as a vegetarian gelatin substitute and in biotechnology for culturing purposes.


Derived from the shells of crustaceans and certain fungi, it’s used in medical applications, water purification, and cosmetics.


Apart from culinary uses, seaweed can be transformed into bioplastics, textiles, and biofuels.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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