Robot chemists? The evolution of lab design

How have laboratories — the home of scientific innovation — evolved over the centuries to help researchers develop their ideas? These questions lie at the heart of Peter J. T. Morris’s new book, The Matter Factory: A History of the Chemistry Laboratory. In an email interview, Morris gave us a glimpse into the past, present, and future of lab design.

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In the book, you write:

It may be thought that laboratories are changed because of scientific progress, the improving status of chemistry and increased funding. These factors undoubtedly play some role in the improvement of the laboratory, but I would argue that they are not the most important factors. The crucial factor in my view is competition.

Why is this?

I believe competition is important for any form of innovation. Technological changes make innovation possible and better labs in particular feasible, but in themselves they do not explain why these better labs are built. Change is disruptive — for example people have to be moved out of the old lab, and it is usually expensive. In general change does not occur for change’s sake. What drove the development of new and better labs was the competition between chemists, universities, cities, and even states.

Alchemist's laboratory, 1595

Alchemist’s laboratory, 1595

What are the dominant trends in chemistry lab design today? How do they relate to labs of the past?

The dominant trends today are safety, flexibility of design (modular design), and easy access to utilities (electricity, gas, water, sewerage). But this has been a gradual process which began in the 1840s with the introduction of fume cupboards and piped water and gas.

Credit: Wellcome Library (L0015744; license CC4)

Seventeenth-century laboratory

Modular design (which came in from office design) is probably the biggest change in recent times. There is no way that a lab in the 1900s could have been converted into offices in a few days.

Laboratory of Antoine Lavoisier, eighteenth century

Broadly speaking, how has the relationship between designers — architects, engineers, and the like — and labs changed over time?

The construction of new laboratories has always been a collaboration between the clients, architects, and builders. I am not sure there is any change between the mid-nineteenth century and today, except that the department as a whole will now be involved rather than just the head of the department.

One might be inclined to say that architectural firms are more likely to use off-the-shelf designs now than a century ago, but I am sure that late nineteenth century firms such as Alfred Waterhouse probably had their standard designs as well.

Nineteenth-century German chemistry lab

Environmental, health, and safety issues drive many decisions in lab design today. How does this manifest itself? How has it changed over the years?

This is shown in the increased number of fume cupboards (and practically all the experimental work in, for example, organic chemistry being carried out in them), the shrinking size of labs, and their enclosure from office and eating areas. The days of drinking tea from a beaker in the lab are gone.

MIT industrial chemistry lab, 1892

As I said in my book, the end result of this drive for ever-improved safety may well be robotic (and remotely controlled) chemistry as standard. This may strike many chemists as being bizarre, but we have to remember that it is now standard in astronomy, although for different reasons.

EPA chemistry laboratory, 1972

What do you think are the most exciting possibilities for labs of the future?

I think labs will become increasingly like fume cupboards: small enclosed rooms in which the air is constantly changed and dominated by actual fume cupboards.

Research laboratory, University of Oxford, twenty-first century

From there, it will go toward either robotic and remotely controlled operation, or (or perhaps and) the development of virtual reactions using computers, which removes the need to do “real” experiments at all — or at least greatly reduces the number that a chemist needs to carry out.

Frick Chemistry Laboratory, Princeton University

Frick Chemistry Laboratory, Princeton University, 2011

Both of these scenarios may seem very futuristic, and I would not expect them to happen until about 2050 (which is well within the lifetime of today’s graduate students), but we are already part of the way there.

 

Questions or comments for Peter Morris? Email peter.morris@sciencemuseum.ac.uk.

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