Routine operations

On Friday I went to a talk by Steven Ley titled Going with the Flow: Enabling Technologies for Molecule Makers. His group at Cambridge have done a lot of impressive work on flow chemistry over many years, both developing the technology and using it to synthesise organic molecules.

He covered a lot of ground in the talk, but one of his main points was that it is “unsustainable to use people for routine operations”. Chemists train for 10 years to then stand in front of a fume hood running columns. Ley wants to develop tools that allow researchers to make better use of their time in the laboratory. Flow chemistry has many benefits over batch chemistry, one of them being that it is easy to automate.

His talk left me wondering where I’m particularly inefficient in the lab. Sample collection and recording absorption spectra are particularly time consuming. Last year I started to build an (Arduino-powered) automatic sample collector, but made it far too complicated and never finished it. Now I’ve drastically simplified it (to the design my supervisor said I should use in the first place, as he often likes to remind me) and hope to have it working by the end of next week. I reckon it could save me anywhere between 5–10 hours a week of standing around swapping vials. I’m also going to make a start on recording absorption spectra inline. Again, this will save me a few hours a week, leaving me to do something more valuable.

I completely agree with Ley about the benefits of flow chemistry, but you can’t ignore that all this equipment costs money. Ley’s group use a lot of commercially available equipment and it’s not cheap. In my group, we build a lot of apparatus ourselves because we can tailor it to our needs and it’s a lot more “hackable” (as well as cheaper).

Someone in the audience tried to make the point during questions that funding is tight, especially for those working in organic synthesis. How they meant to afford equipment like £40,000 inline infrared spectrometers? Ley didn’t really answer this question (and I’m not sure he can). He’s obviously very well funded so he can build and develop the “lab of the future” [1]. A lot of this technology might be out of the budget of the chemists who will benefit from it the most. Unfortunately they might be performing “routine operations” for some time to come.

[1]: M.D. Hopkin, I.R. Baxendale, S.V. Ley, Chim. Oggi./Chemistry Today, 2011, 29, 28-32.