A mechanical lab assistant could accelerate chemistry research.

What’s new: Researchers at the University of Liverpool trained a mobile robot arm to navigate a lab, operate equipment, handle samples, and obtain results far faster than a human scientist. The authors believe their system is the first mobile robot capable of running lab experiments.

How it works: In a recent study, the articulated arm on wheels completed 688 experiments, testing various hypotheses to extract hydrogen from water efficiently using chemicals and light.

  • The system navigates using lidar, so it can operate in the dark.
  • The researchers divided the lab into a series of stations devoted to specific procedures. Upon arriving at each station, the arm calibrated its position by tapping the sides of cubes that the scientists had mounted next to each piece of gear.
  • The arm is topped with a gripper for mixing chemical samples and operating laboratory equipment.
  • A Bayesian optimization model uses the results of each experiment to update the next round by adjusting one of 10 variables, such as the chemical mixture.

Results: The study discovered chemical formulae that made it easier to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water. More important, it proved that a robot can do such work effectively, speedily, and without interruption. The authors estimate that a human scientist would have taken 1,000 times longer to produce similar results.

Why it matters: The authors hope to offer robots for sale within 18 months. The $150,000-plus price tag might be a bargain if the Covid-19 pandemic makes in-person lab experimentation unfeasible.

We’re thinking: Most factory automation involves stationary robots positioned along a manufacturing line. Perhaps mobile manipulation — where the arm moves to the object being manipulated — will prove to be more efficient for automating science labs.

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