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Microscopic Robot Lends Helping Hand

The robotic microhand, made of silicon finger bones and plastic balloon joints, when clenched is about as thick as a dime. (Image credit: Yen-Wen Lu)

A microscopic robot hand, made of silicon and plastic balloons, could help perform surgery and defuse bombs.

The "microhand" is so tiny that when clenched into a fist it measures a little over one millimeter across, or roughly as thick as a dime [image]. It is made using silicon finger bones and balloons for joints that inflate and deflate to flex the fingers.

The robot hand was designed by microelectromechanical systems scientist Yen-Wen Lu at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., and mechanical engineer Chang-Jin Kim at UCLA. The prototype has four fingers arranged into a cross, each digit roughly a half-millimeter long, made via conventional semiconductor manufacturing techniques normally used to assemble electronics.

The microhand is gentle but strong enough to pluck a single delicate fish egg from a sticky egg mass [video].

"You could imagine this being used for microsurgery— at the end of a catheter, for instance. We found we could grab a nerve bundle with it," Kim told LiveScience. "We are also working with a company who said this could help disarm explosives. Right now the robotic manipulators used there are pretty crude, and a gentle and dexterous hand would be helpful."

Lu and Kim reported their findings online Oct. 16 via the journal Applied Physics Letters.

Charles Q. Choi
Charles Q. Choi
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and Space.com. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.