You could say that we’re currently in the midst of something of an automation revolution. Everywhere you turn it seems that technology is doing a job once reserved for a human. From the self-service checkout at the supermarket to the maps app on your smartphone, some things are now so ingrained in our everyday lives that we barely even notice them at all.
This move is affecting the world of chemistry too, with elements of automation becoming much more commonplace in the labs of today. Lab automation is a fairly broad term, but it can cover everything from centrifuges and weighing systems, to stirrers and data handling software – all programmed to require minimal human interaction, giving back precious time.
This technology is changing the way we work across the board: making us more efficient, more productive, and helping us to strive for better ways of working within the lab. Let’s take a look in more detail at some of the ways in which automation is being used right across the chemistry field, and what automated chemistry could mean for the future.
Drug discovery is an incredibly important area of work – yet horribly expensive. It can cost millions to develop a new drug, and the results aren’t guaranteed to be reproducible. While automation won’t necessarily solve this issue, it can definitely help.
Automation for drug discovery isn’t a new idea. Back in the 1990s, it was lauded as the next big thing; with the potential to run multiple parallel reactions and create whole libraries of drug molecules in an instant. But the reality was that automation was producing far too much data than could be properly analysed, which made for some poor drug candidates.
This had a bit of a knock-on effect on the development of new solutions in the following years, but things look on the up once more. Studies are now taking place into the automatic purification of active substances, as well as hands-free molecular discovery, and even fully-automated drug discovery labs.
Process development and scale up
The scale up of chemical processes comes with some inherent risks, particularly with regards to controlling exotherms. Automation can provide an increased level of safety, like the ability to monitor the reactor process temperature and automatically change the setpoint for the circulator to remove heat from the system. Safety feedback loops which some automation systems offer can allow the user to pause an addition pump if a sensor indicates a user defined value, and will restart when a safe condition is restored.
In process R&D and scale up, the ability to collect data automatically frees the chemist up to spend their time more productively. What’s more, Multivariate Process Analytical Techniques are continually being improved, which may lead to reactions being able to run safely overnight, with process data collected to be reviewed at a later date.
Lab automation for efficiency
As mentioned previously, there’s no doubt that lab automation allows for a huge productivity boost. It can all but eliminate the more menial, tedious tasks that tend to take up the most time, such as the constant stream of small adjustments to your experiment.You can also gather more data in less time, with much more accuracy – which means fewer hours spent at the bench, and more hours available to think creatively and try new things.
Automation for safer lab conditions
Automation is also being used to improve the health and safety conditions of labs, making for much more low-risk work environments. Smart software can greatly reduce the likelihood of accidents; many systems allow you to pre-set limits, so equipment can shut down automatically if safe conditions are exceeded (or at least warn you by sounding an alarm). And you can pretty much say goodbye to user errors – after all, technology doesn’t make mistakes because it didn’t get enough sleep last night!
Making molecules can be a fairly laborious task. From mixing and measuring temperatures to analysing your results (time and time again), it can quickly become tedious and incredibly time-consuming. It’s probably little surprise then that scientists have been looking for automated solutions to tackle this – and it looks as though they’ve been successful.
Automation in this respect makes use of something called ‘continuous flow’, where the reagents are pumped constantly through a series of tubes and chemicals are then added at different points. It’s all about creating the best possible conditions in the easiest way possible.
It’s thought that this process could cut down reaction optimisation times from days and weeks to mere hours, and that it could also be fully scalable. But it’s not been met with glowing praise from everyone. Many view the chemical synthesis process as something of an art form, and not something that AI can simply replicate.
The future of automation
With so many advances happening at seemingly such a rapid pace, it’s understandable to assume that everything is going to change immediately, and for the worse – could robot overlords soon be taking our jobs?! Well, don’t worry.
Automation comes with many bumps in the road, and it will take a while for all of the issues to be ironed out completely – so don’t expect things to change overnight. And even though it’s a subject that comes with its fair share of fear mongering, it’s incredibly unlikely that automation will take jobs from scientists working in chemistry now and in the future. It’s much more about removing the need for humans to do the more boring, tedious tasks, rather than removing their jobs altogether. A helpful assistant, if you will!
Whatever the future holds, automation will be a part of it in some way, shape or form, so we should be looking to embrace it and the myriad of possibilities that come along with it.
Radleys automation – paving the way
Radleys have been exploring the ways in which automation can help chemists become more productive for some time now, and we’ve had great success with our AVA Control Software in doing just that. This software is capable of controlling temperature, pH, stirring and more without the need for human input, as well as being able to run multiple experiments simultaneously. The Mya 4 Reaction Stationalso champions automation to the extent that you can run 24/7 unattended chemistry, safely and efficiently.