How a Tiny Robot Could Help Clean Up Our Oceans

Macie Deleon Universal /
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It's no secret that our bodies of water are filled with pollution. From discarded face masks to tons upon tons of plastic, our oceans - and their ecosystems - are in grave danger due to human litter. But now, it looks like we might have a solution: tiny robots. Here's everything you need to know.

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"We have a big plastic pollution problem now," said chemist Sherri Mason from Pennsylvania State University. According to her, the first step towards solving the issue is consuming less plastic. As for the second step? We have to fix the damage that's been done with a huge cleanup. And that's where this latest invention of microrobots can come in handy.

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The self-propelled machines are no larger than the tip of a pencil and are being created by chemists in the Czech Republic. The lead scientist on the team, Martin Pumera, explained that tiny robots have been in the works for the last decade. And his group decided to do something useful with them. The small devices are magnetic and swim through the water when exposed to sunlight.

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The mini-robots have two functions: they can hold on to a microplastic for later collection or they can break it down instantly. But cleaning up the world's microplastic pollution is no simple task. These bits are found everywhere, from the depths of the oceans to the top of mountains. With plastics now appearing in our drinking waters, this part of the planet is a good place to start the clean-up.

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And with the invention of these tiny 'bots, we might actually be off to a good start. "I'm encouraged," Sherri Mason said of the project. "[It's] a really interesting idea to help with cleanup efforts down the road." And she's not the only expert who thinks so.

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"This work is great," commented Douglas Blackiston, a biologist at Tufts University in Massachusetts. "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."