In the typical small molecule synthesis lab today, almost everything but the actual synthesis is handled by robots or machines. Why can’t a robot go to the chem storage room, draw up exactly 19.01 mL of 1.52M n-BuLi (freshly titrated by another robot!) in a syringe, roll over to the fume hood and inject it to the reaction mixture, at such a rate that the internal temperature (which we rarely ever measure anyway) never goes above -68 ºC. And so on.

How come the Industrial Revolution has not yet sunk its rotten teeth into organic synthesis? We should be grateful, of course, but… is it avoidable?

In the mean-time, brothers and sisters, prepare yourselves for the worst! This book is highly relevant: “How to survive a robot uprising”

Johnny 5

 

2 Responses to Why are there no synthesis robots? (Or are there?)

  1. CatalysisAlex says:

    Yes, wouldn’t that be nice?
    In an “old fashioned way” it does exist at many places in form of technicians; you tell them what you need (electronically) and they way out the chemicals from the chemical storage. Not sure about solutions of e.g. BuLi, I guess that counts as “standard chemical” that you have at your bench. Although for that I could imagine already now a simpler version of a ‘bot. Maybe try the Lego Mindstorm NXT kit to something like that. Most likely possible, and definetly a first.

  2. milkshake says:

    there was has been a large number of chemistry robotic stations developed for combinatorial/parallel synthesis. There is are good reason why they are not popular (outside the field of peptide and oligonucleotide synthesis) – these systems are expensive, cumbersome and buggy. They break, leak, clog, they need maintenance. They have problem handling viscous solutions and solvents with high vapor pressure (like DCM). They have dead volume and cross-contamination issues. They suffer from time delay when executing pre-programed sequence. They get stuck because of program bug. Even when they work as they are supposed to(and often they don’t) these systems put huge constraint on what can be done with them.

    They also do not provide that much time saving. You have to prepare the stock solutions of reagents yourself and load them into reservoirs.
    Adding the starting materials together while cooling/heating etc is only a small part of the process, the most varied and complicated part of the experiment is workup and isolation, purification of the product.

    The best use of automated robotic systems is for a repetitive series of reactions that are extremely robust – not prone to overreaction, not sensitive to moisture, not requiring careful cooling/stirring control. Turns out, these are kinds of reactions that can be done by a low-level lab technician too, and usually a thinking person doing the work is a more productive and cheaper alternative. (The same technician can also purify the compounds on prep HPLC, take the spectra and writing the submission records)

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