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Creepy Chips

Polymer-and-silicon chips lined with tiny structures that act like biological cilia, or hair cells, could provide a new way to position and assemble delicate hardware, says electrical engineer Karl Bhringer at the University of Washington. Activated by heat, the artificial cilia work in groups of four, each group measuring about one millimeter across. Each chip has 256 cilia: Flip the chip upside down, and it can walk on a table. Put a platoon of them on the outside of a space station, and they could grab hold of a small satellite and make minute adjustments to its position as it docks, refuels, and transfers data. In collaboration with Stanford University, Bhringer has shown that an array of four chips can align a mock satellite the size of a tennis ball by nudging it to and fro. But the researchers will need to reduce power consumption by a factor of 10, he says, before the chips will be ready for space. A possible solution: electrostatically activated cilia, which are in development and could be ready for testing within a year.

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