What happens when artificial intelligence meets the world of research? Simple: laboratories such as the A-Lab are born. Hubs that promise to change the way we study and discover new materials.
Yan Zeng, lead scientist of the A-Lab at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said the goal is to use artificial intelligence to discover the materials of the future. In fact, A-aLab is designed to become a model for laboratories that make the most of the potential of robots and AI in a fully automated and accelerated research cycle.
A virtuous whirlwind
The main problem in the search for new materials is the time needed to go from theoretical prediction to experimental verification.
This is why laboratories such as the A-Lab will come into play, capable of processing up to 100 times more samples than a human researcher.
The goal is to find materials useful for sectors such as solar cells, fuel cells, thermoelectrics and other clean energy technologies. Starting with new materials for batteries and energy storage.
In the laboratories of the future, a choreography of robots at the service of science
In the A-Lab, the process of synthesis of materials it is managed by a fleet of robots working in perfect synchronicity. An example? After selecting the target material, the first robot weighs and mixes different combinations of ingredients, called precursors. Among them, metal oxides such as lithium, iron, copper, manganese and nickel.
The second robot takes care of loading the samples into the ovens. The third extracts the material produced and reduces it to a fine powder. In the end, a fourth robot (or robotic arm) transfers samples to analysis devices: for example a X-ray diffractometer and an automated electron microscope. The tools send the results to the artificial intelligence system, which guides the research cycle and adapts it based on the new information obtained.
This adaptive setup in the laboratories of the future will enable them to address an ever-changing research environment. A huge difference compared to traditional automation processes used in industry.
The whole system is designed as a 'closed loop', where decisions are made without human intervention, allowing researchers to spend more time designing experiments, analyzing results and possible practical applications.
A new era
Gerd Ceder, principal investigator of the A-Lab, says the new autonomous laboratories will represent a breakthrough in materials research, breaking the slow and expensive cycle that has characterized the sector for the past 70 years.
The A-Lab is just the progenitor of a method that uses inorganic powders as starting ingredients, a more complex task than the automation of liquid-based processes. The upside, though, is the ability to produce larger quantities of materials and explore a wide variety of substances.
The researchers will continue to optimize the system and add new features, such as robots for replenishment of materials and additional tools for analyzing samples.
We're just at the beginning: after a long planning process, research on the first materials started in February 2023. To paraphrase Shakespeare, "the future is made of the same materials that will come out of these laboratories".