Chemical Lab Automation

One related outcomes from NRI’s work in software-controlled microfluidics systems is an extrapolation for use in introducing software-controlled operation into a wide variety of traditional laboratory glassware setups. Such traditional laboratory glassware setups are of course used in chemistry research but also used in fine chemical production, quality control, sample testing, and other industrial processes. Many tasks involving fixed laboratory glassware setups are repetitive and/or require occasional adjustment, and accordingly in principle could lend themselves to software-controlled automation. However, articles of traditional laboratory glassware do not provide features that allow for software-controlled automation. Creating entirely new variations on traditional laboratory glassware apparatus likely would not have enough market to justify creation of a product, and overall there are so many types of specialized traditional laboratory glassware apparatus that such an endeavor is essentially intractable. Further, many laboratory procedures are so entrenched in expensive legacy investments in traditional laboratory glassware apparatus that re-outfitting the glassware stock, even in part, of a laboratory is also essentially intractable.

However, traditional laboratory glassware apparatus do have two areas of standardization that can be interfaced in a relatively common way across a vast range of traditional laboratory glassware items. These are (1) “stopcock” valves for enabling, blocking, or redirecting flows of materials and (2) ground-glass joints for interconnection of two or more articles of laboratory glassware. NRI uses these to provide means for retrofitting legacy traditional laboratory glassware apparatus, setups made from these, and the tremendous legacy financial and skill investment in traditional laboratory glassware apparatus so that an effective degree of software-controlled automation can be introduced for the first time into such systems. This NRI technology allows skilled laboratory staff to do more creative work, and can also provide in many cases a far higher degree of precision or attentiveness that could usually be possible with human-based laboratory-process monitoring and attendance.

One of the NRI technologies is a stopcock replacement element, designed to fit in the standardized stopcock receptacle found in a wide range of articles of traditional laboratory glassware, comprising an internal servo or motor that can be controlled by an external computer. Within the stopcock replacement element can be, for example, a co-axially-centered internal rotating element whose position is (to a designed degree of precision) precisely controlled by the servo or motor (for example employing planetary gearing). In some implementations the position of the co-axially-centered internal rotating element can be sensed by a sensor. Additionally, the entire device can be implemented to resemble a traditional handle-operated stopcock which can function by hand operation or computer control, for example in a manner where mechanical human intervention can override computer control.

A variation of this technology, controlled by a motor, servo, and/or by hand, is a modification of a stopcock flow-hole into a tear-drop or other functionally-similar shape so that a traditional stopcock can be easily and reproducibly operated in a manner that allows for gradual variations in flow rate. This delivers a new feature to articles of traditional laboratory glassware since the holes in traditional stopcocks are so small that they are essentially on/off or routing elements rather than gradient valves.

Another of this family of NRI technologies is a glass manifold having a number of ground-glass-joint ports and stopcocks for controlling flows through the ports. Such a manifold can be used to route and/or distribute a flow of materials among many sources and/or destinations under the control of the stopcocks. In an automated version, one or more of the stopcocks can include the aforementioned rotation by an electrical motor or a servo that can be controlled by a computer.
Additionally, in the design and testing of software-controlled Lab-on-Chip architectures, NRI has found it useful to have a software-controlled lab-bench-scale emulation environment and has devised a modular approach for this. However, the idea of software-controlled chemical routing and processing hardware modules also proves very useful in chemical laboratory automation and can be readily adapted accordingly.

Drawing upon such infrastructure (software controlled valve, manifolds, and modular elements), an adaptation of the NRI software control system developed for NRI’s software-controlled microfluidics systems can be used to control tranditional laboratory glassware setups that in the past could only be realistically operated by trained laboratory staffing. This adaptation NRI’s software-controlled microfluidics systems can be configured to control the aforementioned stopcocks as well as (a) to accept various sensor inputs and (b) control AC-powered or signal-controlled electrical laboratory apparatus such as heaters, stirrers, pumps, chillers, photochemical light sources, etc.

Issued Patents

TitlePatent NumberApplication NumberPriority DatesPDFText OnlyRelated Patents
Valve-manifold laboratory glassware for chemical laboratory automation and other applications
9,586,20214/287,17910/06/2009PDFText Chemical Laboratory Automation
Valve-manifold laboratory glassware for chemical laboratory automation and other application 8,734,73612/899,53110/06/2009PDFText Chemical Laboratory Automation
Reconfigurable Chemical Process Systems8,594,84811/946,67811/28/2006PDFText Chemical Laboratory Automation

Pending Patents

TitlePublication NumberApplication NumberPriority DatesPDFText OnlyRelated Patents
Valve-Manifold Laboratory Glassware with Motorized Longitudinally-Movable Gate Rotating Plug Valves for Chemical Laboratory Automation and Other Applications 2017/016567115/442,61410/06/2009PDFTextChemical Laboratory Automation
Laboratory Stopcock Valve Manifold With Arbitrary Mapping of Flow to Rotation Angle and Provisions for Motorized Planetary Gear Control
2017/0095817
15/383,953
10/06/2009
PDFTextChemical Laboratory Automation
Modular Computer-Controlled Multistep Chemical Processing System for Use in Laboratory Automation or Chemical Production
2014/001073414/023,29212/04/2007PDFText Chemical Laboratory Automation
Rotary Plug, Ball, and Laboratory Stopcock Valves with Arbitrary Mapping of Flow to Rotation Angle and Provisions for Servo Controls2012/008595112/899,55110/06/2009PDFTextChemical Laboratory Automation

Pending Unpublished Applications

TitleApplication NumberPriority DatesRelated Patents