The pharmaceutical industry developed ways to create, then test, thousands of materials at a time. Now that technology is moving into polymers, according to Symyx Technologies Inc.
The Santa Clara, Calif., company makes heavy use of automation to synthesize polymers in many combinations of molecular building blocks, and chemically characterize each one, then create samples and run tests.
Polymers director Damian Hajduk said the technology is a major step forward for research and development.
``So instead of just making a decision based on one or two materials at a time, I am effectively making it based on tiny quantities of 10,000-100,000,'' Hajduk said in his keynote speech at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Antec 2005 conference, held May 1-5 in Boston.
The technology, called ``combinatorial chemistry'' and ``high-throughput experimentation,'' greatly reduces R&D time. Traditionally, polymer researchers have created a pilot plant to get the large quantities required. Sometimes, Hajduk said, chemists test one material only to learn they have to start all over.
With combinatorial chemistry, software can be set to screen out a polymer for high temperature resistance, or viscosity level, for example. Early tests of thousands of materials use special parallel batch reactors, fluid multiplexers and other exotic equipment. Robotic devices make samples by placing tiny drops of liquid, which spread out to make a film.
Hajduk said Symyx developed software to help researchers control the robots and analyze the results. Early stages use very small sample sizes, but as materials are winnowed out in later stages, the amount of material and the level of testing increases, he said.
It's all pretty high-tech and automated. But Hajduk said combinatorial chemistry exists to help human researchers, not replace them.
``It doesn't replace thinking. It doesn't replace people. It amplifies their expertise,'' he said.