Automated Catalyst Laboratory

BP Chemicals and DSM (formerly Dutch State Mining) worked on a joint venture to create a fully automated catalyst testing laboratory. The laboratory allowed polymer catalysts to be tested 24/7 and provided far greater consistency than the previous manual methods.

The search for better polymer catalysts is constant. Given the tons of polymer created, a catalyst that increases the yield by even a fraction of a percent is valuable. But there are many variables in polymerisation - so each catalyst was tested using a range of these variables (temperature, pressure, percentages of gases, etc).

In the past, these experiments were run by white-coated lab technicians. It wasn't a particularly exciting job for them, and the results were not particularly consistent (let the reactor overheat slightly on the ramp-up temperature and the results may change). Also, it required an army of lab technicians, and they needed to be briefed by the chemists before testing.

iDroidApps wrote a scripting environment that allowed chemists and lab technicians alike to create a sequence of experiments, and run them with a number of variables. The environment was a graphical front end (much like Lego Mindstorms!) that allowed them to configure a standard function that could be re-used - for example a reactor purge cycle.

Once created, the experiment would be queued up. Experiments were then batched together, so that experiments using similar solvents could be run together (to stop solvent cross contamination, and to make preparations easier). Catalysts were prepared and placed in the inert glovebox, where a Tecan sampling robot would load them into the reactor. There were 8 reactors running at any one time. The software would control everything in the experiment, including the robots to change the reactor vessels, the Tecan robot to load catalysts and solvents, and the gas supply / pressure / reactor heating and cooling. Extensive logging was also generated throughout the experiment.

On completion, the results were analysed and returned to the chemist.