Professor Wilhelm Huck develops revolutionary robot lab

Wilhelm Huck voor het periodiek systeem in het Huygensgebouw
We are at the start of a huge materials transition. If we want to replace plastics, we have to use other combinations of molecules.
Wilhelm Huck
Current role
Professor Physical-Organic Chemistry

It seems like a dream, but Wilhelm Huck firmly believes in it: a robot lab that combines chemistry and artificial intelligence (AI) to develop materials of the future. Huck is professor of physical-organic chemistry at the Institute for Molecules and Materials of Radboud University Nijmegen. He has received a contribution of 97 million euros from the government's National Growth Fund to realise the scientific programme Robotlab: the revolution of self-thinking molecular systems.

If we no longer want to use materials from the fossil industry, to reduce CO2 emissions, then new materials will have to be developed as quickly as possible, argues Wilhelm Huck. As a professor of physical-organic chemistry, he knows that there are an infinite number of combinations of molecules that can be made. More than people can imagine.

“In addition, we simply don't have the time to try everything out,” Huck argues. “That is why we need artificial intelligence to develop new, sustainable materials, but also paints, coatings without PFAS and medicines.”

Wilhelm Huck voor het periodiek systeem in het Huygensgebouw

First self-governing lab in the world

With the scientific research programme Robotlab: the revolution of self-thinking molecular systems, the professor expects to take a big step in the right direction. Together with other scientific partners and the business community, initiator Huck is working on building the first fully automated robot lab that can devise complex molecular systems.

By combining chemistry and high technology, such as robotics and artificial intelligence (big data and self-learning systems), such a self-governing lab is created. Such a lab can come up with solutions to complex questions much faster than humans.

“We humans have to formulate the problem, the robot lab works out the solution that we can then refine,” Huck explains. He emphasises that a huge acceleration of scientific research is needed to find answers to the questions we face due to the climate crisis.

Materials transition

The energy transition is just the start of all kinds of changes, the professor emphasises. 'We are at the beginning of a huge transition, in addition to the energy transition, there will also be a materials transition. Just think about what is made of plastic. Plastics are made from building blocks from the fossil industry, such as the oil industry. If we want to replace plastics, we have to use other combinations of molecules, other building blocks.'

Nijmegen, Eindhoven, Groningen

The robot lab is being developed by Radboud University Nijmegen in collaboration with the University of Groningen, the Eindhoven University of Technology, the research institute AMOLF in Amsterdam and the Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Eindhoven.

After a period of preparation, the real work begins. “The first people have been hired and we are in the process of purchasing our first robot,” Huck reports. He is scientific director of the Big Chemistry foundation, which carries out the research programme Robotlab: the revolution of self-thinking molecular systems.

The aim of the research programme is to develop a fully automated laboratory, a robot lab, within seven years, complete with a network of supply companies.

The development of these economic activities is a condition for the subsidy from the National Growth Fund. The wish is to build the robot lab on the Novio Tech Campus in Nijmegen.

Train AI 

Scientists involved in the robot lab will initially work on training artificial intelligence systems. “We must first provide AI with the necessary chemical knowledge before you can use it,” says Huck.

"AI currently knows which molecules to make, but not yet how to combine them in such a way that they lead to solutions. We still have to make a lot of data available and do experiments."

Radically different: Big Chemistry

For example, the robot lab can contribute to the development of sustainable products for the paint industry, pharmaceuticals and the food industry.

The advantage of the lab is that it enables developments that are based more on big data and systematic analysis and less on intuition and trial and error, as is now common.

"It's super exciting. We are going to do everything radically different and call it Big Chemistry,” says Huck. "We are working on co-creation, where humans and computers work together in a new way. This way we can work faster and better on scientific breakthroughs."

Wilhelm Huck in een labjas in een chemisch lab

The interview first appeared on TechGelderland. Pictures: Linda Verweij