A team of British researchers has developed a new robot capable of working autonomously in the laboratory. This high-performance machine is not intended to replace humans, but to relieve them of repeated manipulations.
Andrew Cooper and his team from the Department of Chemistry and Materials at the University of Liverpool (England) have been developing for three years a robotic arm capable of performing experiments independently in the laboratory. Remotely controlled by an artificial intelligence algorithm, the machine can work up to 21 hours a day without recharging.
To move around, the robot’s base relies on LIDAR technology, a system for scanning the environment by lasers. To help it position itself, cubic bases are placed on the various workspaces with which the robot interacts.
A laboratory technician like no other
Basically, this new robotic arm was designed with the aim of carrying out experiments in the synthesis of photocatalysts that allow the production of hydrogen from water molecules using light.
The idea was to test different substitution molecules that were less polluting than those usually used in petrochemicals. Depending on the results, the robot could then decide for itself which mixtures to perform in order to obtain the best possible hydrogen yield.
As part of this detailed study in the journal Nature, the researchers explain that they were able to conduct more than 688 experiments in eight days thanks to this new robotic arm. For human chemists, this type of work requires several months of research.
In addition, the rate of experiments missed by the robot is on average only 11 for 688, or 98.4%. Again, it does better than humans.
“Our biggest challenge was to make the system robust,” explains in a press release Dr. Benjamin Burger, programmer and creator of the robot. “To work autonomously over several days performing thousands of delicate manipulations, the failure rate [of the robot] had to be very low. But once it’s in place, the robot makes far fewer mistakes than a human. ”
With its 1.7 meters high and more than 400 kilos on the scale, this robot is of course not intended to replace real chemists.
“It’s important to stress that you still need human scientists because the robot does the experiments, but doesn’t decide which experiments to do,” Andrew Cooper points out to Newsweek. “One of the most difficult things in research is choosing what to work on and the robot doesn’t do it. So if you ask the robot to work on a pointless and irrelevant problem, it will do it forever.
According to the researcher, the goal is to have the ability for scientists to do “much more ambitious and interesting chemistry”.
According to Cooper, such a robot could cost around 125,000 dollars (110,000 euros). If at first glance the bill seems steep, the price remains below that of a high-end instrument in the laboratory. “It would be expensive if it only offered to mow your lawn, but in the context of research, we think it is actually much cheaper than other approaches.”
While this robot was originally developed as part of catalyst research, it could eventually be used for other purposes. For example, he could evaluate new drug formulations by looking for unexplored chemical reactions.