Automatic for the polymer An automated approach to making new polymers has been developed by a team led by researchers at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, USA, working with colleagues at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia. The approach could be exploited to generate a vast library of materials for screening for a range of applications, particularly of those relevant to human health. The team alludes to their work having potential in creating novel plastics and fibers for chemical and biological applications such as drug delivery, regenerative medicine, and tissue engineering. [Tamasi, M. et al., Adv. Intell. Sys. (2019); DOI: 10.1002/aisy.201900126]

The team's custom software written in Python and a liquid-handling robot (an Hamilton MLSTARlet) can generate almost 400 different polymers simultaneously a very different prospect to the handful that a chemist might be able to make with current methods. Critically, the team's approach circumvents the problem of oxygen exposure, which usually hinders polymerization reactions of the controlled living/radical polymerization sort, the majority of which are highly sensitive to this gas. The open-air robotics platform carries out polymer synthesis reactions that tolerate oxygen.

The team can essentially "draw" a new polymer with their software and it then controls the robot that makes the new material. The robot handles the reagents, the dispensing sequences, and synthesis steps required to create homopolymers, random heteropolymers, and block copolymers in the standard 96-well plates familiar in many laboratories. The robot also handles any requisite post?polymerization modifications. This means that even those without particular expertise in polymer synthesis can make new polymers based on required functional groups and other parameters.

"Typically, researchers synthesize polymers in highly controlled environments, limiting the development of large libraries of complex materials," explains senior author Adam Gormley, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. He adds that "By automating polymer synthesis and using a robotic platform, it is now possible to rapidly create a multitude of unique materials."

High throughput will allow many more polymers of different types to be screened for a range of properties so that patterns that emerge can be used to reveal the relationships between structure and those characteristics. With such knowledge in hand, the polymer designs can be tweaked to direct the robot to synthesize yet more molecular diversity that homes in on particular behavior.

"Using this approach, we demonstrate the synergy between highly customizable liquid handling robotics and oxygen tolerant controlled living/radical polymerization to automate advanced polymer synthesis for high throughput and combinatorial polymer research," the team writes.