Tiny Swimming Robots Could Help Clean Microplastics
By Andrew Parker - January 5, 2022

There is a very big problem happening not only in our oceans but above water as well. There are very small pieces of plastic and they are all over the place. You can find some at the bottom of the ocean and in the blowing air on top of mountains. These pieces have even been found in bottled water and tap water. Studies have concluded that there may be trillions of these plastic pieces floating in the water here on Earth. This plastic comes from many sources, such as straws, shopping bags, and cleaning wipes just to name a few. The reason so many people turn to plastic without giving it much thought is that it’s durable and doesn’t break down so easily.

Getty Images/Moment/Lisa Schaetzle

Chemists in the Czech Republic are going after this environmental issue by thinking really small. They have developed new microrobots with the goal of cleaning up small pieces of plastic that are polluting our waters. These star-shaped robots are magnetic, and when the sun hits their surface, they create a chemical reaction which then moves them in a certain direction within the water. When they spot plastic bits, they attach to them and start breaking them down. The mini-robots can break down plastic, or they can either hold on to that piece of plastic for collection purposes. Douglas Blackiston, a biologist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass said, “This work is great. These robots can eat plastic. They chew it up. Or they can retrieve it and be collected with a magnet. Scientists love robots with all these capabilities.”

This project is being led by chemist Martin Pumera at the Czech University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague and wanted to give the swimming robots a goal that would be useful. Sherri “Sam“ Mason, a chemist at Pennsylvania State University Behrend, in Erie said, “We have a big plastic pollution problem now.” But when it comes to the robots, she explains they’re “a really interesting idea to help with cleanup efforts down the road.” Pumera wants to eventually create accessible, budget-friendly, and environmentally friendly robots that can be used everywhere. However, Pumera has noted that there are still many steps that need to be taken with all the different types of plastics there are out there. Hopefully one day, these microrobots will have an enormous impact on worldwide cleanup.