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Graphene Microbots Built to Scour Water of Heavy Metals

The microbots have already demonstrated that they can remove 95 percent of lead from polluted water in one hour.

Many of the processes we need for modern life create pollution. Making batteries and electronic devices or mining the earth, for example, produce hazardous heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and chromium, all of which can get into soil and water.

But some tube-shaped microbots made of graphene are getting ready to save the day. Made by a team of researchers lead by Diana Vilela of the Max-Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany, the microbots have already demonstrated that they can remove 95 percent of the lead from polluted water in one hour.

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The bots - each one smaller than the width of a human hair - can be reused many times, reducing the cost of remediation.

"This work is a step toward the development of smart remediation system where we can target and remove traces of pollutant without producing an additional contamination," coauthor Samuel Sánchez told

The tiny robots work because they're made in layers. The outer layer is graphene, which grabs onto any lead ions it comes into contact with.

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The middle layer is made of nickel, a ferromagnetic material that allows a person to remotely control where the microbot swims by using an external magnetic field. The core layer is made of platinum, which helps propel the device.

The propulsion occurs when hydrogen peroxide is added to the water, which causes the platinum to decompose and produce microbubbles. Those bubbles shoot out the back of the microbot and push it forward. The video demonstrating the propulsion shows the microbots zooming around the water like little rocket ships.

You can watch the video here.

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Once the microbots have collected the lead, they can release those tiny bits, which can be collected and reused.

"The use of self-powered nanomachines that can capture heavy metals from contaminated solutions, transport them to desired places and even release them for 'closing the loop' - that is a proof-of-concept towards industrial applications," said Sánchez.

At the moment, the microbots only work for lead but the team plans to extend the use of microbots to other contaminants and work on a way to mass-produce the robots at a low cost.

S.W.A.R.M. (Search With Aerial RC Multirotor) is a volunteer network of drone owners that work with authorities in search-and-rescue scenarios. Coordinated drone searches are less expensive than piloted aircraft operations, and can cover larger areas. The group has more than 1,000 members in 42 countries.

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Toshiba's custom-designed two-arm underwater robot was constructed for the express purpose of removing debris and fuel rods from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, destroyed by an earthquake in March of 2011.

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Drone Systems' Scout UAS is designed to be used by the first arriving units in emergency situations. It can be deployed in under two minutes to provide aerial view of disasters or wildfires.

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The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has developed a hybrid aerial drone that can enter flaming skyscrapers and endure flames of more than 1,000 degrees Celsius. The bot can shift from flight mode to spider mode on its own, crawling up walls to navigate narrow spaces.

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Robots and drones get a bad rap sometimes, but there's an entire industry out there designing bots and UAVs specifically designed to save human lives. Here we take a look at some of these machines, including Boston Dynamics' BigDog robot -- pictured above. Like a hydraulic St. Bernard, the robot can deliver emergency supplies to remote or hazardous areas over rough terrain.

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This concept UAV from industrial designers Frog Design can be deployed in skiing areas for both avalanche prevention and rescue. The drone could carry explosives to trigger controlled avalanches, or use its thermal cameras to locate people trapped under snow.

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Another concept UAV from Frog Design, the Firestorm uses an array of advanced sensors to move through burning buildings. Powerful LED lights and a short-wave bullhorn can be used to guide survivors to safety.

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Developed by a German nonprofit, the Defikopter is designed to deliver defibrillator units to victims in remote locations. The drone can be summoned by smartphone app and uses GPS coordinates to drop the defibrillator by parachute.

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From the Bristol-Oxford Nuclear Research Centre in England, the Airborne Radiation Mapping (AARM) drone carries special radiation detection payloads. Deployed into radioactive environments, the UAV can quickly determine whether a particular area is safe humans.

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Another innovative design from Boston Dynamics, the SandFlea can jump up to 30 feet in the air to overcome obstacles during reconnaissance missions. Onboard stabilizers keep the bot level while it's in flight, and the bot is accurate enough to jump directly into second- or third-floor windows.

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