Large vats full of chemicals where future drones grow… The Chemputer, developed by Lee Cronin with support from BAE Systems, is one of the first prototypes to seriously tackle digitizing chemistry.
From his lab at the University of Glasgow, Lee Cronin is attracting attention. The chemistry professor, in association with BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest defense contractors, would like to grow drones in large vats full of chemicals. The prototype, presented by the company in a strange video that resembles a video game from the 2000s, is quite startling.
Growing drones with chemistry, by BAE Systems:
“To be clear, I am not growing drones out of chemicals, that BAE’S vision. What I’m doing is building a robot that digitizes chemistry, makes materials and makes molecules.”
Lee Cronin, researcher at the University of Glasgow
Cronin has been working on the Chemputer (now trademarked by BAE) since 2009. The aim of the prototype, he explains, is to “digitize the process of making molecules”. One important application is to make drugs using a digital code, in order to “make them available beyond the life of the factory that produces them”.
“The first step is to use the device to take chemical recipes and digitize them,” he says. “You could imagine in the future an extension in which simple medicines can be made locally in a pharmacy under regulated conditions. Or the extreme version, in which some medicines could be made by the patient himself.”
The MP3 of molecules
Digitizing chemistry is Professor Cronin’s credo—“to make the process reproducible by digitizing the recipe”. If implementation is complex, the idea itself is fairly simple: “It’s the same thing as digitizing music. To record music, you use an analogue microphone, sample that analogue signal and, with a converter, turn it into a digital code. Then, you can play your music through speakers. What we do is sample the chemistry. We use a recording device that copies the chemistry, then we use a platform to structure the analogue data into digital data that can be reproduced.”
The process is already quite advanced, at least when it comes to making drugs: “The barriers are not science; the barriers are regulation, safety and cost.”
“Print your own medicine”, Lee Cronin, TED talk, 2012:
So what about drones?
“The drone part is BAE thinking of how, in the future, you might use the Chemputer,” Cronin replies. “They’re interested in distant future of manufacturing, and I’m interested in helping them discover new materials.” By recreating a manufacturing process similar to 3D printing based on chemicals, BAE hopes to create “very sophisticated nanostructured materials”.
For the shape of the object emerging from the bath, manufacturers could use a mold, or “understand the self-organization of the material, so that the nano cells could organize and the material could construct itself, a bit like growing a tree from a seed”. For the electronics, “That’s the secret bit! It would take a moment, to be honest. Putting electronics there would be hugely complex.”
If the drone project is still “far from reality”, admits the professor, it’s worth BAE’s investment. Growing drones would be “much more flexible and much more tailored. (…) When you think about the amount of effort when it comes to prototyping UAV and planes, the cost could potentially become lower with Chemputer, because you can do more trial and error.”
In the meantime, Cronin is determined to take advantage of the increasingly accessible technologies of modular platforms (structures that can adapt to several different products, especially in the automotive industry) and cheap electronics, which enabled 3D printing, and “make it more useful than just a 3D printer that produces random plastic objects”.
“There are a lot of potential avenues out there. Many people are looking at automation and control in all areas of science and technology, from personal drones to robotics or automatized vehicles. It’s a very exciting time, and the power of this technology will come through collaboration. We have to think about what we want to do with this technology, what ideas we have, and crucially, what is the driver in the marketplace,” he concludes.