1. News
July 19, 2018

Robot chemist does heavy lifting in search for new molecules

By Robert Scammell

Scientists from the University of Glasgow have designed and trained a robot chemist that can discover new molecules and chemical reactions.

Using the robot could make it cheaper to discover new molecules used in drugs or for materials in industry.

The artificially intelligent robot uses machine learning algorithms to break away from the normal rules of organic synthesis.

Typical methods for discovering chemical reactions can be both unpredictable and time-consuming, whereas the chemical-handling robot is capable of carrying out up to 36 experiments per day.

Professor Lee Cronin, who led the research, told Verdict that the “robot mixes the chemical ingredients together and looks for a change by using the special sensors we have on the robot that are able to detect new types of molecule”.

robot chemist

After training the robot to carry out about 10% of the tasks, the system was able to predict with 80% accuracy which combinations of starting chemicals should be explored to create new reactions and molecules.

“This robot, once it makes a discovery, can write down the ‘coordinates’ as a digital-chemical-code so that other people or robots can repeat it or make it better,” said Cronin.

Robot chemist is a key step in the digitisation of chemistry

Cronin believes that the approach is a “key step” in the digitisation of chemistry, the process of turning the manual process of chemistry into a software code.

He said that it will “allow the real-time searching of chemical space leading to new discoveries of drugs, interesting molecules with valuable applications, and cutting cost, time, and crucially improving safety, reducing waste, and helping chemistry enter a new digital era”.

Cronin and his team have established a company called DeepMatter Group, which could lead to commercialisation of the technology.

There are no regulatory boundaries for using a robot to discover new molecules. If a company discovered a new molecule, though, it would have to meet regulations before it could be used.

robot chemist

Cronin told the BBC that there is little threat the robot chemist will make human chemists redundant.

“Chemists, most of the time in the laboratory, are doing manual labour,” he said.

Instead, the machine could provide chemists with more time to conduct more intricate research.

Cronin said that the robot chemist could be further improved by “adding more sensors, increasing the speed further, and being able to handle more complex reactions”.

The team’s next idea is to use the machine to search for molecules and materials that meet the requests of the user, such as the best material for a specific application.

The findings were published in the journal Nature. Funding was provided by the University of Glasgow complex chemistry initiative, the European Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Council.

Read more: FDA prioritises 3D printed drugs

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