This line from 17th century alchemist Johann Joachim Becher is frequently used by synthetic chemists to express their dedication and delight in practical work. Although a lot has changed since Becher’s day, chemists still spend a lot of time weighing solids and measuring liquids to make molecules and discover new reactions. ‘Chemistry is still a highly experimentally demanding discipline – you need to work in the lab to get results,’ says Cristina Nevado, an organic chemist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.
However, robots are starting to beat chemists at their own game. An automated flow reactor optimises a reaction in only one day – a task that might take a human chemists weeks or even months. Smart systems like the drug discovery robot Eve combine lab skills and artificial intelligence to test and modify a given hypothesis.
‘Chemists are hungry for change,’ declares Martin Burke from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US. Having built a small molecule synthesiser, Burke is one of the scientists embracing automation and robotics – technology that might not only free chemists from some of the more tedious parts of their work, but completely change the way molecules are made. Eventually, Burke and others believe, advanced synthesis robots will entirely replace human lab workers.
Already, automation has played an important part in making small-scale synthesis more efficient. Descendants of Unimate, the first industrial robotic arm patented in 1961, now transfer vials and tubes into analytical machines or dispense amounts of liquid too small for human hands to handle. Over the last few decades, machines carrying out more sophisticated tasks like column chromatography have become affordable and widespread. (Read more from “Robots Starting to Beat Chemists at Their Own Game?” HERE)