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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/T031263/1
Title: Autonomous Mobile Robot Chemists
Principal Investigator: Cooper, Professor A
Other Investigators:
Slater, Dr AG van der Hoek, Professor W Chong, Dr S
Cowan, Professor AJ Greenaway, Dr R
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Centre for Process Innovation Limited Croda (Group) KUKA Robotics UK Limited
Liverpool ChiroChem Ltd Mettler-Toledo (International) Unilever
Department: Chemistry
Organisation: University of Liverpool
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 01 October 2020 Ends: 30 September 2023 Value (£): 690,497
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Materials Synthesis & Growth
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Manufacturing
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
09 Mar 2020 EPSRC Strategic Equipment Interview Panel March 2020 - Panel 1 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
The use of autonomous robotic technologies is increasingly common for applications such as manufacturing, warehousing, and driverless vehicles. Automated robots have been used in chemistry research, too, but their widespread application is limited by the cost of the technology, and the need to build a bespoke automated version of each instrument that is required. We have developed a different approach by using mobile 'robotic chemists' that can work within a relatively standard laboratory, replicating the dexterous tasks that are carried out by human researchers. These robots can operate autonomously, 24/7, for extended periods, and they can therefore cover a much larger search space that would usually be possible. Also, the robots are driven by artificial intelligence (AI) and can search highly complex multidimensional experimental spaces, offering the potential to find revolutionary new materials. They can also carry out multiple separate experiments in parallel, if needed, to make optimal use of the available hardware in a highly cost-effective way.

Our proposal is to establish a globally unique user facility in Liverpool that covers a broad range of materials research problems, allowing the discovery of useful products such as clean solar fuels catalysts, catalysts for plastics recycling, medicinal materials, and energy materials. This facility will allow researchers from both academic teams and from industry to access this new technology, which would otherwise be unavailable to them. Because the automation approach is modular, it will be possible for users to bring along specific equipment for their experiments to be 'dropped in' temporarily to create new workflows, greatly expanding the possible user base. The scope here is very broad because we have recently developed methods that give these robots have very high placement precision (+/- 0.12 mm): to a large extent, if a human can use the instrument, then so can the robot.

We have identified, initially, a group of 25 academic users across 12 universities as 'day one' prospective users, as well as 7 industrial organisations with a specific interest in this technology. The potential user base, however, is far broader than this, and we will solicit applications for access throughout the project and beyond. This will be managed by a Strategic Management Team and an Operational Management Team that involves academics as well as permanent technical, administrative, and business development staff in the Materials Innovation Factory in Liverpool. Our overall objective is to build a sustainable AI-driven robotic facility that will provide a unique competitive advantage for the UK to discover new functional materials on a timescale that would be impossible using more conventional research methodology. In addition to focusing on excellent science, we will also consider diversity and career stage when prioritising access; for example, even a short, one-week visit to this autonomous facility might lead to 100's or even 1000's of new materials with associated property measurements, which might radically transform a PhD project or the change the direction of the research programme for an Early Career Researcher. This facility will therefore build the base of the UK research pyramid, as well as supporting activity that is already internationally leading, and our day-one user base includes researchers at all career stages.
Key Findings
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Potential use in non-academic contexts
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Impacts
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Summary
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Organisation Website: http://www.liv.ac.uk