Scientists at the University of California, San Diego have developed a new kind of tiny motor — which they call a “microrocket” — that can propel itself through acidic environments, such as the human stomach, without any external energy source. Joseph Wang and colleagues in the Department of Nanoengineering explain that self-propelled nano- or microscale motors could have applications in targeted drug delivery or imaging in humans or as a way to monitor industrial applications, such as semiconductor processing. However, some versions of these small-scale motors are not self-propelled and require the addition of a fuel (commonly hydrogen peroxide). Other versions cannot withstand extreme environments such as the stomach, which is very acidic. That’s why the researchers developed a new, tubular microrocket that can move itself without added fuels in very acidic conditions.

In acidic environments, a microrocket spontaneously produces bubbles of hydrogen gas, which propels it like the gases spewing out of a rocket’s motor nozzle. The microrocket is ultrafast — it can move farther than 100 times its 0.0004-inch length in just one second. In contrast to current devices of this kind, the microrocket’s interior is lined with zinc, which is more biocompatible and “greener” than other materials and leads to the generation of the hydrogen bubbles. Wang’s team also developed a version with a magnetic layer, which enabled them to guide the microrockets toward cargo for pick-up, transport, and release.