It could be said that society is currently in the midst of an automation revolution. Technology is everywhere and is seemingly performing jobs that were once reserved for humans.
From self-service checkouts at the supermarket to the maps app on your smartphone, some things are now so ingrained in our daily lives that we hardly even notice them anymore.
This transition is having an effect on the world of chemistry too, with increasing instances of automation becoming much more common in today’s laboratory.
While lab automation is a fairly comprehensive term, it can cover everything from centrifuges and weighing systems to stirrers and data handling software – all programmed to minimize human interaction and free up precious time.
This technology is shaking up the daily routines across the board: leading to greater efficiencies, more productivity and ushering in better ways of working within the lab.
This article will look at some of the ways in which automation is being applied across the entire chemistry field and what automated chemistry could signal for the future.
Drug discovery is an absolutely vital area of work – yet dreadfully expensive. Costs can easily run into the millions to develop a new drug, and the results are not always guaranteed to be reproducible. While automation will not necessarily resolve this issue, it can certainly help.
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Applying automation in drug discovery is not a particularly new idea. Back in the 1990s, it was heralded as the next big thing, with the possibility of running multiple parallel reactions and producing entire libraries of drug molecules instantly.
However, in reality, automation produced far too much data than could be analyzed effectively, which presented some poor drug candidates.
This had a bit of a ripple effect on the development of new solutions in the subsequent years, but things are starting to look up. Studies are now underway investigating the automatic purification of active substances, fully-automated drug discovery labs, as well as hands-free molecular discovery.
Process Development and Scale-Up
The scale-up of chemical processes raises a series of potential risks, especially concerning the ability to control exotherms.
Automation can offer an increased level of safety, such as the capability of tracking the reactor process temperature and automatically adjusting the setpoint for the circulator to extract excess heat from the system.
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Safety feedback loops, which are offered as standard in some automation systems, can enable the user to pause an addition pump if a sensor signals a user-defined value, and will restart when safe conditions are restored.
In process R&D and scale-up, the capability to automatically collect data frees up the chemist and allows them to spend their time more productively.
Moreover, Multivariate Process Analytical Techniques are being continually improved, which may give rise to the ability to safely run reactions overnight, with process data collected for review at a later date.
Lab Automation for Efficiency
As already mentioned, there is little doubt that lab automation offers a significant productivity boost. It can all but eradicate the more tedious, menial tasks that consume the most time, such as the constant need to make small adjustments to an experiment.
It is also possible to gather more data in less time, with greater accuracy – which means a reduction in the time spent at the bench, freeing up time to think creatively and try out new things.
Automation for Safer Lab Conditions
Automation is also being used to enhance the health and safety conditions of labs, meaning a proliferation of low-risk work environments.
Smart software can significantly reduce the probability of accidents; many systems allow users to set pre-set limits, so shutting down equipment is performed automatically if safe conditions are exceeded (or at least sound an alert).
Moreover, user errors are all but eliminated – after all, technology will not make mistakes as a result of not getting sufficient sleep and being tired.
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Making molecules can be a fairly labor-intensive task. From mixing and measuring temperatures to analyzing the results (over and over), it can soon become a tedious and time-intensive task. It is, therefore, of little surprise that scientists have been actively seeking automated solutions to address this head-on – and it seems like success is on the cards.
Automation in this way utilizes a process known as ‘continuous flow,’ where the reagents are constantly pumped through a series of tubes, and chemicals are then introduced at various points. It is all about making sure the best possible conditions are created in the most basic way possible.
It is thought that this process could reduce reaction optimization times from days and weeks to just a few hours and that it could also be completely scalable.
However, not everyone has met this with glowing praise. There are a number of people that view the chemical synthesis process as something of an art form and not easily reproduced with the application of AI.
The Future of Automation
With such a great number of advances occurring at a seemingly rapid pace, it could be assumed that everything is going to change almost immediately, with technology taking over a lot of work that humans currently carry out.
However, there are a number of obstacles that automation must navigate, and it will take a while to iron out all of the issues completely – so things are not likely to change overnight.
Even though automation is a subject that also comes with a decent amount of fear-mongering, it is not very likely that automation will mean scientists working in chemistry will lose their jobs any time soon or even in the future.
It is much more effective to have automated processes to carry out the more tedious, time-consuming tasks rather than replacing humans altogether.
Whatever is in store, automation will be a part of the future in some way, shape or form, so the myriad of possibilities that come along with it should be embraced, not feared.
Radleys’ Automation – Paving the Way
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For some time now, Radleys has been investigating ways in which automation can help chemists become more productive, and the company has seen great success with its AVA Control Software.
This software has the capacity to control temperature, pH, stirring and more without the need for human interaction, as well as being able to conduct multiple experiments in parallel. The Mya 4 Reaction Station also champions automation to the extent that you can safely run chemistry-based processes 24/7, unattended and efficiently.
To find out more about how Radleys’ range of products can be of benefit, get in touch with the team today.
This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Radleys.
For more information on this source, please visit Radleys.