Automated Chemical Synthesis: Still a Long Way Off or on the Brink?
Robert Chapman

Automated Chemical Synthesis: Still a Long Way Off or on the Brink?

Some early approaches offer a window on the thrilling potential and important strides that chemical labs are making

We seem to be at the start of an automated system revolution. Several industries are moving to automation as a way to reduce costs, increase efficiencies, and in some cases improve safety. From self-driving cars to drone deliveries of your online shopping, odds are we will all be exposed to some level of automation in our lives. Can chemical synthesis join in and move towards automated chemical synthesis, or will we be left behind?   

Automated chemical synthesis has had a number of false starts over the years. In the 90’s it was hailed as the savior of drug discovery, but now it is talked of in hushed tones as a dirty concept by some within the chemistry community. Yet some synthetic automation is commonplace in the scientific community - for example, the automated synthesis of DNA and other biological polymers has enabled massive leaps forward in the field of molecular biology.

Achieving a fully automated system that could synthesize any compound is an altogether different challenge. This represents a mind-boggling step change in complexity due to an almost endless combination of reagents, solvents and conditions, along with the extremes of physical properties that could arise. Chemistry can sometimes be unpredictable; small changes to a compound can have dramatic changes on its behavior in a reaction. An experienced chemist can easily adapt to such changes on the fly without too much thought, whereas current automated systems cannot.

One of the key benefits of automation to a research group is reducing the time spent by chemists on simple and repetitive transformations, allowing them to focus on more challenging or novel reactions or to spend more time designing the next compound. Another benefit is reduced opportunity for human error and increased reproducibility of reactions. There is also the potential to increase efficiency and reduce waste.

This daunting challenge is being tackled by several research groups around the world, yielding some fascinating results. One question that needs to be answered is how much automation do you want? An attractive proposition is a system that can run a reaction from start to finish, including reaction set up, performing the reaction, work up of the reaction and purification of your target material. Two such technologies have recently started to gain attention: Synple Chem, an ETH start-up company utilizing cartridge-based automated synthesis, and the Chemputer being developed by the Cronin group at the University of Glasgow, which promises to be able to perform any reaction that can be conducted using a round bottom flask.

For further details please see these recent articles. I have recently experienced both of these systems in action and am already excited to see which simple yet time-consuming reactions I can relinquish to them.

These approaches are not yet the finished articles, and need further development. However, it is clear to see that both these approaches to automated synthesis offer thrilling potential and important strides forward have been made. It is now perhaps a matter of when, rather than if, automated synthesis will become commonplace in organic labs around the world, unlocking all the potential benefits of automated synthesis.