The AG Automatisierung is an independent, bottom-up interest group founded by members of the AKs Butenschön and Kirschning. In this group, we strive to establish automation technologies at the OCI as well as gain and spread knowledge about applied programming and electrical engineering techniques.
Starting our master and doctoral theses, respectively, we soon realized a lot of our daily work consisted of repetitive and dull handwork. Even worse, experiment design in academic chemistry often boils down to a mix of the chemists’ intuition, trial-and-error and one-factor-at-a-time optimization. The systematic use of machines is usually only encouraged in fields already technical in nature, such as flow. Even there though, technology is often operated manually, wasting tons of potential.
Being the frustrated nerds that we were, we sought solutions to our precarious situation. And sure enough, we soon realized that a lot of unused equipment was available to us, locked away somewhere in the basement, a bittersweet, unholy sacrifice to entropy. So we asked nicely, and brought everything upstairs into our labs.
As mentioned above, having the equipment alone is of no great use. In lots of cases, laboratory equipment is in principle designed to communicate – but you cannot just plug devices into each other and expect them to work in unison. Hence, we started tinkering with Arduino, LabView and the Python scripting language to help us out. What we wanted was to build interfaces, which should allow our lab equipment not only to talk to each other, but also to be controllable by the computer. This way, we were hoping to build connected systems, which could perform complicated tasks, like carrying out entire reaction sequences. It soon became evident that this would become our main project. Lo and behold, after countless cursed nights on stackoverflow, a choreography of machines danced to the rhythm of our figurative baton. Liquids were pumped, mixed, heated, analyzed without our interference, many at once or after another. Chemical reactions at the press of a button, column chromatography set up in 5 minutes and then left alone for automated fraction separation. What more could one ask for?
Being members of different groups with completely different chemistry, while simultaneously sharing the same thoughts and passion, we faced some difficulties on our way. Daily stand-up meetings were good, and the informal nature of our interaction helped accelerate things immensely, but we felt there was more to it than that. Hence we decided to give the whole thing a name, «AG Automatisierung», to clarify this was something on its own, something crossing the typical borders between working groups. We started gathering more interested students, holding seminars, giving talks to each other. We created projects for students, which they could use as part of their mandatory practical lab courses. We spread our newfound knowledge at scientific conferences and established contacts to members of the chemical and automation industry.
Over time, word has spread somewhat, and automation is now an integral part of at least the groups it was born in – Kirschning and Butenschön. However, experience shows that without a constant push, chemists tend to fall back into old habits. We are eager to establish a routine at the OCI, where there exists a fundamental cross-field knowledge, and automation is just another tool on the way to our craved chemical results. Read more about the two actual projects, which started our thinking process, at our projects page!