BBC Science Focus

Meet the robot that’s tackling chemistry’s biggest challenges

This robot chemist took eight days to discover a new catalyst – a task that would’ve taken human researcher­s months to complete


When a team at the University of Liverpool set out to find a new chemical catalyst that could speed up the extraction of hydrogen from water – an area of research that has implicatio­ns for green energy and other industries – they knew they were looking at a lot of work. There were millions of possible experiment­s to run in their search, so they wanted to find an alternativ­e way of doing things. And what could be better than a robot chemist?

“Our motivation was to make what is a complex process autonomous,” explains Prof Andrew Cooper, who led the developmen­t of the robot chemist.

The robot was created from a KUKA Mobile Robot. It has access to a map of the laboratory to allow it to move through the space safely, and its speed is capped at 0.5 metres per second. To navigate, it uses a combinatio­n of laser scanning – similar to the LIDAR system used by driverless cars – and touchfeedb­ack, meaning it can operate in the dark. In fact, the robot can work seven days a week for 21.5 hours a day, only pausing to charge its battery.

While the robot’s arm can carry up to 14kg, the catalyst experiment­s used much lighter equipment. “A rack of filled vials has a mass of 580g,” write the researcher­s in the paper, “but [the payload capacity] could allow for manipulati­ons such as opening and closing the doors of certain equipment.”

After being set basic parameters by the researcher­s, the robot was left to choose between the 98 million possible candidate experiment­s, choosing which ones to carry out based on the results of the previous ones. In just eight days it completed 688 different experiment­s, and found new photocatal­yst mixtures that were six times more active than the scientists’ initial formulatio­ns.

“Previously, we were doing one photocatal­ysis experiment per day, by hand,” says Cooper. “Now, it takes one day to set up the robot, and it can then do 1,000 experiment­s by itself – or conceivabl­y more if we gave it more consumable­s.”

Its human-sized dimensions mean it can fit into pre-existing lab spaces without the need for lowering desks or adjusting equipment, but the researcher­s have not designed the robot to replace real scientists. Instead, Cooper says humans and robots can collaborat­e on tasks, particular­ly when automating an entire production process would be too expensive.

A robot chemist is no cheaper than a salaried human, either. “Mobile robots of this kind cost between £50,000 and £150,000, depending on their capabiliti­es,” says Cooper. “This might sound expensive, but for context, the gas chromatogr­aph – a common instrument in chemistry research used to measure hydrogen production – falls in the same range. It is also not uncommon for chemistry labs to have equipment that costs upwards of £500,000.”

Cooper’s next step is to make the robot smarter. “In the example we published, the robot has no concept of what the chemistry is – it could equally be baking the perfect cake. In the future, we want to put a chemical brain in the robot. That is, so that it can make decisions that are based on the chemical inputs as well as the measuremen­t outputs.”


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