A bald man in a lab coat with black glasses and a beard looks at a machine with many wires emerging from it.
Alán Aspuru-Guzik. Photo by Polina Teif

The Lab That (Almost) Runs Itself

Robots and AI are changing how we do science, making it faster, cheaper and more productive

In this University of Toronto chemistry lab, robots do 90 per cent of the manual work. There is still a lab manager to oversee operations but almost all of the most tedious, repetitive tasks are handled by machines. AI, meanwhile, is helping scientists choose experiments to yield the greatest chance of success, allowing them to focus on bigger questions.

A robotic arm moves a vial from one part of a lab to another.
Video by Polina Teif

This “self-driving lab” belongs to U of T’s Acceleration Consortium, a two-year-old network of nearly 100 researchers around the world that is using AI and automation to radically shorten the time it takes to discover new materials. Earlier this year, the group received a $200-million federal research grant – the largest ever to a university in Canada.

The consortium’s director, Alán Aspuru-Guzik, says the group already has proof their approach works. Scientists here took just two months to test the efficacy of more than 1,000 molecules for use in organic lasers, identifying two with state-of-the art performance. (Other researchers have taken as long as five years to test 10 molecules.)

Organic lasers are cheaper to produce than conventional lasers, easier to modify and more environmentally friendly. “We’re essentially supercharging the process of scientific discovery,” says Aspuru-Guzik.

One hand clad in a purple glove holds a small vial about half full with a solution. The other hand shines a light through the vial
These organic laser molecules are some of the brightest molecules in the world and they were made in a self-driving lab that belongs to U of T’s Acceleration Consortium. Lasers play an increasingly important function in many technologies, from internet communications and the navigational sensors in self-driving cars to eye surgery and lifesaving cancer treatment. They could one day be used to illuminate cell phones or flexible video screens that consume less power than conventional displays. All photos by Polina Teif. All captions by Erin Warner and Rachel Keunen.
Box-like devices, a few stacked on top of one another, connected to vials of liquid through thin translucent tubes. The vials are resting on top of a metal stand next to a display monitor.
Two different devices were used to synthesize the laser molecules. This one was built in-house using pumps, valves, syringes and stir plates. The other (next image) is a commercial product.
An Isynth Catscreen 96, which is a piece of lab equipment that is robotic. It has a squarish blue metal frame and glass sides. Inside are tubes and a robotic arm
This commercially available synthesis device allows scientists to run up to 96 reactions simultaneously over the course of one to two days. The process would take weeks, if not months, if conducted by hand. From this instrument, molecules are sent for purification and analysis using high-performance liquid chromatography.
Two men stand facing each other in a lab crowded with tubes and lab equipment. One is bald, wears glasses and has a beard. The other has long black hair and wears glasses. They both wear lab coats.
While traditional methods of chemistry are still performed in the lab, over time the work will shift from blended (human and robot) to almost all robots. This will not remove the role of human researchers, but instead allow them to focus solely on higher-level analysis, such as defining which materials we wish to discover.
A jumble of thin translucent tubes connected to a small black box at one end, and at the other end, some of the tubes connect to different boxes while others connect to objects out of view. The are two bottles with small amounts of liquid.
Research carried out by robots is highly dependent on fluid flow and transfer. As samples move from synthesis to analysis, they travel through multiple different sections of tubing controlled by different pumps and valves.
A jumble of wires and rectanglular boxes with various buttons and controls.
Is the molecule a truly good laser? To determine this, scientists analyze the molecule solution by shining light on it. They measure the colour, speed and brightness of the laser.
A view of the equipment in the self-driving lab, including translucent thin tubing connected to a black box and a laptop and keyboard. A researcher in glasses and a white lab coat is standing at the far end of the room working with a tool.
Analysis is a key part of the self-driving lab setup. Researchers use these tools to help test whether they actually created the molecule they set out to make – in this case, one that has the ability to lase light of a single colour, or wavelength.
A young man in a lab coat sits at a desk and computer. He is looking up and to his left, explaining something to a young woman in a lab coat. Behind them are a large white cabinet and what looks like a supply of paper and some lab equipment.
The lab’s breadth of expertise is vast, with some researchers specializing in traditional chemistry and others in AI, engineering, computer science, and many more disciplines. Here Felix Strieth-Kalthoff, who has nearly completed his postdoc trains Natalia Ivanova, a new graduate student who is joining the lab.
In the foreground are vials of clear liquid connected by thin translucent tubing to various devices and transparent bottles containing clear liquids. In the back is a white board with notes and diagrams scribbled on it.
One of the consortium’s goals is to make accelerated discovery far more accessible. In this fume hood, researchers have created a smaller scale setup that can be adapted to anyone’s lab. A paper will soon be published with a detailed, step-by-step how-to guide to building one.
A bald man in a white lab coat stands mid frame. He's talking to someone next to him, but we can only see his purple lab gloves. To their left is a large blue container and a glass covering. There are three large oval shaped openings with black edges that allow researchers to get inside the container, presumably to do experiments
Outside of this frame is where the true magic of this operation happens. On a cloud server, AI algorithms written by the researchers run continuously to prompt the lab’s constellation of machines to autonomously carry out the many steps involved in their work.

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