Acceleration Consortium and global collaboration of self-driving labs discovers new molecules for organic solid-state lasers

June 12, 2024 by Andrea Wiseman - Acceleration Consortium

A collaboration of six teams in five labs across three continents — led by the Acceleration Consortium (AC) — has harnessed self-driving labs to discover new molecules for organic solid-state lasers (OSLs).

The collaboration discovered at least 21 top-performing OSL gain candidates in a two-month optimization campaign. This contrasts with the previous few decades which saw only ten to 20 new OSL candidates.

The Acceleration Consortium’s mission is to build a global network that will work together to develop and use self-driving labs to accelerate materials discovery. As new research published in the journal Science describes, an AC research team demonstrated the power of global collaboration as the teams worked together through a delocalized, asynchronous approach using self-driving labs that leverage AI and automation. The collaboration was led by Felix Strieth-Kalthoff of Bergische Universität Wuppertal, and Han Hao, AC staff scientist.

“This project started back in 2018 when I was thinking about what could be done with self-driving labs,” said Alán Aspuru-Guzik, director of the Acceleration Consortium.

“I was thinking about fields that were nascent — fields that had very few example materials in the literature. I was asking myself, ‘Where does the starting line begin when it comes to discovering materials faster?’ And that’s the cool thing about this paper; as I was designing what to do about this question, I spoke to Martin Burke at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and he told me if I wanted a challenge, I should pick OSLs.”

OSLs are lasers that use an organic gain medium – the substance that will amplify the light – that is organic rather than an inorganic single crystal which usually relies on rare elements and is hard to fabricate. The first indication of electrically pumped organic lasing was reported in 2019, which made the timing perfect for Aspuru-Guzik, who is also a professor in the Departments of Chemistry and Computer Science in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

A self-driving lab, or SDL, uses advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotic synthesis to streamline the process of identifying novel materials – in this case, materials with exceptional lasing properties. Up until now, SDLs have usually been confined to one physical lab in one geographic location. In this research, the team employed the concept of distributed experimentation, where tasks are delocalized among different research sites to achieve the joint goal. For this research, labs from Toronto, Vancouver, Glasgow, Illinois and Fukuoka, Japan, were involved.

“The reality is that you’re not always going to be able get every researcher and piece of equipment you need to tackle large problems all in the same facility,” said Felix Strieth-Kalthoff, assistant professor of digital chemistry at Bergische Universität Wuppertal.

“Even though we’re building a world-leading self-driving lab hub in Toronto, there are excellent labs around the world that we can connect with to create new materials — and that’s what we did here.”

By using this method, each lab was able to contribute its unique expertise and resources which ultimately played a key role in the success of this project. This decentralized workflow, managed by a cloud-based platform, not only enhanced efficiency but also allowed for the rapid replication of experimental findings, ultimately democratizing the discovery process.

“The way the AI works is that it looks at the data and picks the best molecules to synthesize and then test,” said Strieth-Kalthoff.

“But you don’t want the lab in Toronto and the lab in Glasgow synthesizing the same, or nearly the same molecule at the same time — that would be a waste of resources. So by using the cloud, the AI could make sure each lab was making and testing different molecules ensuring a wide variety of data was fed back up into the cloud. That helped us get results even faster.”

Ultimately, this collaborative model not only maximized the collective knowledge and resources of the research teams but also set a precedent for future delocalized discovery campaigns in the field of materials science and self-driving labs.

“We originally designed the AC’s lab to discover this laser, so really, this experiment is where it all began in Toronto,” says Aspuru-Guzik. “Just last month, we hosted Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland to show her the power of SDLs in Canada and I was able to show her the organic laser molecules. It really was a full circle moment and underscores the importance of AI in Canada.”

The AC is just getting started. In 2023 it was awarded a $200-million grant from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) – the largest any Canadian university as ever received.

“When Deputy Prime Minister Freeland visited, while I was touring her around the lab, I was thinking, ‘Wow, just beyond the wall there is a big hole in the ground where our new lab is going to be. That’s where we’re building six new self-driving lab spaces. It’s all happening here, right now.’

“And so, I am proud that we’re working to make Toronto the world capital of self-driving labs. You watch, in the near future there will be many more buildings with SDLs in our city — public, private and government. And that is really exciting.”

Read the full Acceleration Consortium news story