Experiments with robot support: Automation in the chemistry laboratory

A robot that can perform experiments a thousand times faster? That sounds like a groundbreaking development for research. At the University of Liverpool, chemistry students have done just that. An autonomous KMR iiwa from KUKA supports the scientists in their search for specific combinations of substances.

In many cases, scientific research means one thing above all: patience. In order to obtain reliable results, series of experiments often have to be repeated countless times. Absolute accuracy is required, because even small deviations – for example, in the composition of the material – can be decisive.

The mobile robot KMR iiwa in a laboratory at the University of Liverpool

Countless precise repetitions? This is the perfect task for a robot, thought researchers at the University of Liverpool in the Department of Chemistry, and without further ado they developed an automation solution that can carry out and monitor research tasks, making autonomous decisions about what to do next.

Robotics for Sisyphean tasks

Professor Andy Cooper’s group taught a mobile robot KMR iiwa from KUKA to move independently in a laboratory, carry out experiments and evaluate the results to determine the next steps.

“This research was all about developing a new photocatalyst”, explains Andy Cooper from the University of Liverpool. These are chemical substances that break down water into its constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen, when exposed to sunlight. This is an important process, especially for the production of clean energy without using fossil fuels.

The problem: finding the right combination of chemical elements capable of doing this is a Sisyphean task: “In purely mathematical terms, there were more than 98 million combinations, and it is often difficult to know where to start,” explains Cooper.

With artificial intelligence to the right result

For human laboratory staff, this is an almost impossible task. “The robot therefore uses an optimization algorithm to reduce the number of experiments.”

Guided only by a computer program that is wirelessly connected to the mobile platform, the KMR iiwa carries out experiments independently. The lightweight robot LBR iiwa mixes samples in glass flasks, exposes them to a light source and analyses the result with the aid of a gas chromatograph.

Like a human researcher, the robot’s artificial intelligence is able to adapt its next steps to the result of an experiment. The big difference to its human colleagues is that the robot can work continuously, thinking in 10 dimensions, and never losing concentration.

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Deliver results 1,000 times faster

In just eight days, the KUKA robot managed to carry out and document 688 experiments. Since the robot only needs a 90-minute break per day to charge its batteries, it delivers results about 1,000 times faster than would be possible without automation.

“The great advantage of an automation solution is not necessarily speed, however”, says Prof. Cooper, adding that “although speed is the major advantage. “But it’s more about giving researchers the opportunity to conduct more ambitious, larger-scale experiments, which would not be possible with human power alone”.

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Navigating via laser system

Moving around independently in the laboratory

For navigation in space, the mobile platform uses a laser-based system. This enables the robot to reliably detect if there are obstacles on its path, including, for example, if an employee crosses its path. The big advantage: the mobile platform can be used in practically any room without having to make changes or purchase new tools.

“In short: what a human being can work with, the robot can work with in principle,” says Cooper. The use of robot systems could therefore make life much easier for researchers both in universities and in industrial research labs.

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