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A-Lab The Autonomous Lab At Berkeley

The A-Lab is an autonomous, robotically controlled laboratory environment at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

(Bernardus Rendy (left) and Yuxing Fei fine-tune the A-Lab components)

“We see this as a new way of doing research,” said Gerd Ceder, the principal investigator for A-Lab. In many ways, Ceder noted, lab research has been the same for the last 70 years: the equipment may have gotten better, but ultimately a person is needed to take measurements, analyze results, and decide what to do next.

“The important thing is not working in parallel, but instead to iterate rapidly, the way scientists operate. We want the system to try something, analyze the data, and then decide what to do next to get closer to the goal.”

A-Lab is thought to be the first fully automated lab that uses inorganic powders as the starting ingredients. This “solid-state synthesis” is a more difficult task than automating processes that use liquids, which can be easily dispensed with pumps and valves. But the extra effort comes with a big payoff.

“Our solid-state synthesis is more realistic, can incorporate a wider variety of materials, and can make larger quantities of materials,” Ceder said. “You can produce quantities that are ready for application, not just science exploration. It’s ready to scale.”

The process works like this:

The first robot weighs and mixes different combinations of starting ingredients known as powder precursors. The robot can choose from nearly 200 precursors, including different metal oxides containing elements such as lithium, iron, copper, manganese, and nickel. After mixing the powders with solvent to evenly distribute them, the robot moves the slurry into crucibles.

The next robotic arm loads the crucibles into furnaces that can reach 2200 degrees Fahrenheit and inject various mixtures of gases... The AI system determines what temperature the samples should bake at, and for how long.

After the robot removes the baked crucibles, it must extract the new material. An automated machine modeled on a gumball dispenser adds a ball bearing to the cup. Intense shaking grinds the new substance into a fine powder that the robot loads onto a slide.

The final robotic arm moves the samples into two automated machines for analysis. The X-ray diffractometer determines whether one or more new chemicals have been formed, and how much of the initial ingredients are left over. The automated electron microscope does further shape and chemical analysis. Both tools send their results back to the AI system.

Guided by artificial intelligence, the cycle adjusts and begins again.

(Cool videos here)

One of the early versions of a science-fictional automatic laboratory is presented by sf author Michael Moorcock in his 1964 story The Shores of Death:

OLONO SHAEVIS’s VAST network of laboratories impressed Clovis Marca. He had visited similar places on Earth but none so spectacular, none designed not simply for function but also for beauty. The complex underground building — built, he remembered, by the efforts of one man — was, in fact, a palace of incredible beauty. There were chambers in it which far outweighed the old cathedrals of Earth in their ability to transport the mind into realms other than the physical. They moved Clovis Marca deeply and he felt that no-one capable of creating such superb architecture could be evil.
(Read more about the automatic laboratory)

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