Radboud University: Growth fund grant for robot lab makes Netherlands a leader in Big Chemistry

A research programme aiming to build a revolutionary robot lab that combines chemistry and artificial intelligence (AI) and that will enrich the scientific infrastructure for chemistry in the Netherlands will receive a contribution of 97 million from the National Growth Fund. The “Robotlab: De Revolutie van Zelfdenkende Moleculaire Systemen” (robot lab: the revolution of intelligent molecular systems) programme is led by Wilhelm Huck, professor of Physical-Organic Chemistry at Radboud University. With this grant, the Netherlands can position itself as a global leader in the field of chemical robotics combined with artificial intelligence.

The decision of the advisory committee chaired by Jeroen Dijsselbloem on the second round of the National Growth Fund was adopted by the Council of Ministers today. The research program receives the award on the condition that a number of specific aspects are further elaborated.

The ambition of the research programme is to develop a new ecosystem around a fully automated laboratory (robot lab) in seven years, with a contribution to the gross domestic product of EUR 400 to 750 million. The lab is being developed in cooperation with Fontys University of Applied Sciences Eindhoven; the goal is to establish the robot lab at Novio Tech Campus in Nijmegen.

Robot lab for big chemistry
Central to the research plan is the construction of a robot lab, combining chemical research, high technology (robotics), and artificial intelligence (big data + self-learning systems). This will lead to a lab where all processes are automated and connected to each other. As a result, this kind of lab can do many more and much better controlled experiments than labs in which only some of the processes are automated.
Furthermore, the AI components in the lab allow the development of new chemical products or formulations to be based more on big data and systematic analysis and less on intuition and trial and error. In short: the chemistry practised in this robot lab is faster, better, and more reliable.

Combination of science and industrial R&D
The robot lab that initiator Wilhelm Huck has in mind will in practice be used often by larger and smaller companies who want to develop new products with their research and development departments. For example, the lab can contribute to the development of more sustainable products for the paint, pharmaceutical, and food industries. The explicit intention is that science and practice will learn from each other and raise each other to greater heights.

Fundamental science
While learning, the robot lab also offers space for fundamental scientific research into matters such as the development of self-learning molecular systems, the origin of life, and biomaterials.
One of the challenges to which the robot lab will contribute is the demand for energy-efficient solutions to data storage and processing. If you know that the human genome stores data much more efficiently than any electronic system, and if you know that brains process data much more energy-efficiently than our current computers, then there are huge opportunities for solutions inspired by the architecture of biological systems.

Max Planck Research Campus
The research programme also has an ambition to strengthen the scientific infrastructure in the field of chemistry in the Netherlands and abroad. There is a concrete plan for a virtual Max Planck Emergence of Molecular Complexity Research Campus, in which Radboud University, the University of Groningen, TU Eindhoven, research institute AMOLF, and several German Max Planck Institutes collaborate in the field of chemistry. In the long run, this cooperation should ideally lead to the creation of a Max Planck Origins of Complexity Institute in the Netherlands.

Wide-ranging collaboration
The implementation of the programme will be in a foundation that represents the broad collaboration of research institutions, including the Fontys University of Applied Sciences Eindhoven, Eindhoven University of Technology, Radboud University, AMOLF Institute, and Groningen University. From the government side, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and NWO (Dutch research council) are directly involved. For the construction of the robot lab, there will be close cooperation with companies located at the Brainport Campus in Eindhoven and the NovioTech Campus in Nijmegen. Internationally, this programme will connect with the Max Planck Gesellschaft in Germany.

Wilhelm Huck-DvA-159854

Wilhelm Huck, scientific director of the programme: “With this investment from the Growth Fund, we have the means to take up the challenge together and build the world’s first fully automated robot lab for the formulation of complex molecular systems. This robot lab and the use of artificial intelligence will bring about a transformation in this area of chemistry. In addition to the many applications in the field of coatings, foodstuffs, or personal care products, scientists now have a unique tool to study the complex molecular systems serve as the foundation for the origin of life or understand how to build computers that work in the same way as our brains.”

Co-Initiator Bert Meijer, Technical University Eindhoven and Radboud University: “With the right timing, the Netherlands can translate our international top position in fundamental supramolecular sciences into many applications with sustainability as the main theme. If we can elevate the art of formulation to a science-based technology and base it on artificial intelligence, that would be a dream come true. And now is the right time to realise that dream.”

Teade Punter, leading lector High Tech Systemen en Materials Fontys: “With its practical approach to research on materials, systems and high tech, Fontys and its academic partners and companies will develop and implement the innovative robot lab.”

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