A lab in 2014 boasts a battery of fume cupboards and analytical instruments — and no one is smoking a pipe. But the essence of what researchers are doing is the same. Organic chemists typically plan their work on paper, sketching hexagons and carbon chains on page after page as they think through the sequence of reactions they will need to make a given molecule. Then they try to follow that sequence by hand — painstakingly mixing, filtering and distilling, stitching together molecules as if they were embroidering quilts. But a growing band of chemists is now trying to free the field from its artisanal roots by creating a device with the ability to fabricate any organic molecule automatically. “I would consider it entirely feasible to build a synthesis machine which could make any one of a billion defined small molecules on demand,” declares Richard Whitby, a chemist at the University of Southampton, UK.
True, even a menu of one billion compounds would encompass just an infinitesimal fraction of the estimated 1060 moderately sized carbon-based molecules that could possibly exist. But it would still be at least ten times the number of organic molecules that have ever been synthesized by humans. Such a device could thus offer an astonishing diversity of compounds for investigation by researchers developing drugs, agrochemicals or materials.
“A synthesis machine would be transformational,” says Tim Jamison, a chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. “I can see challenges in every single area,” he adds, “but I don't think it's impossible”.
A British project called Dial-a-Molecule is laying the groundwork. Led by Whitby, the £700,000 (US$1.2-million) project began in 2010 and currently runs until May 2015. So far, it has mostly focused on working out what components the machine would need, and building a collaboration of more than 450 researchers and 60 companies to help work on the idea. The hope, says Whitby, is that this launchpad will help team members to attract the long-term support they need to achieve the vision.