Creating a robot to autonomously do the repetitive tasks carried out by researchers every day is a holy grail of science research. If a robot can perform the tasks quickly and accurately with minimal supervision, the scientists can get to work coming up with new ideas on how to solve life’s problems.
Well, a team from the University of Liverpool may have made just that. Published in Nature on Wednesday, the team designed a robot that was capable of rapidly performing chemistry experiments up to 1,000 times faster than its human counterparts.
“Our strategy here was to automate the researcher, rather than the instruments. This creates a level of flexibility that will change both the way we work and the problems we can tackle," said Professor Andrew Cooper from the University’s Department of Chemistry and Materials Innovation Factory in an emailed statement. "This is not just another machine in the lab: it’s a new superpowered team member, and it frees up time for the human researchers to think creatively.”
The robot is designed to be small and fit into the average lab setting, making it versatile for an array of different tasks – it’s even capable of moving itself around the lab. Using a single robotic arm, the robot worked for over eight days straight and completed 688 experiments with a very low error rate.
Check the robot out in action below.
The robot in action completing experiments in the University of Liverpool. Credit: Andrew Cooper
The task was to choose between a variety of different samples, operations, and measurements to identify a photocatalyst that is more sensitive than those used today. Photocatalysts are incredibly important in the race to create clean energy, as they produce hydrogen from water when exposed to sunlight. Hydrogen is used extensively in power generation and large industrial processes like fertilizer and petroleum refining, and producing it in huge quantities is vital.
Currently, hydrogen is mainly produced from either natural gas, oil, or coal. These methods are unsustainable and damaging to the environment, so researchers are desperately trying to find commercially viable ways to produce hydrogen.
Autonomously choosing which experiments to perform out of a possible 98 million different options, the robot made a huge discovery – a photocatalyst six times more sensitive than those currently available. The team hopes that the catalyst will be helpful in lowering the environmental impact of hydrogen production, and the robot can continue to aid in material discoveries.
Robots are not new to the laboratory and have been completing large-scale tasks for some time. However, the successful application of a robot that can choose and complete a variety of tasks from a given set of parameters could have huge applications moving forward. With the impressive results demonstrated here, laboratory robots could soon become integral to the development of new materials, chemical processes, and even drugs.