The robot lab assistant performs experiments 1,000 times faster than humans can. (Image Credit: University of Liverpool)


Researchers at the UK’s University of Liverpool have developed a robot lab assistant that performs 1,000 times faster than a human. This machine can work 24/7, move around a laboratory and perform experiments on its own. By using this technology, robots could find materials for clean energy or new drug formulations by searching for unknown chemical spaces. The team presented their findings in the journal Nature.


However, the robot isn’t fully autonomous. It needs to be programmed in the same location as the lab equipment and can’t design its own experiments. By operating for 22 hours a day (2 hours to recharge), and seven days a week, the robot can do tasks that researchers wouldn’t tackle. In a trial, the robot was able to conduct experiments 1,000 times faster than a human. The robot doesn’t take any breaks, which influences its speed-up.


However, speed isn’t the main priority. The advantage of using a system like this is that it allows scientists to explore areas of research that humans wouldn’t waste time on.


During its demonstration, the robot found substances that speed up chemical reactions that produce hydrogen from light and water. It was programmed with basic parameters of the experiment but used algorithms to alter 10 variables, including the concentration and ratio of chemical reagents.


The machine performed 688 experiments over eight days, discovering ways to create more efficient reactions. It handled samples in glass vials, exposed them to light, and analyzed results using gas chromatography. During these experiments, it worked for 172 hours, made 319 moves, completed 6,500 manipulations, and traveled 2.17 km in the lab.


The robot is pretty expensive too. It costs between $125,000 and $150,000 to purchase the basic hardware, and it took three years to develop the controlling software. Instead of a vision system, it uses LIDAR to navigate in a lab. This allows it to work in the dark, and it won’t be affected when lighting conditions change. It also manipulates lab equipment using an industrial arm built by Kuka.


The researchers have formed a new company called Mobotix to commercialize the technology, and they plan on fully commoditizing it in approximately 18 months.


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