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Understanding Our Planet Through Chemistry

Robots in the Laboratory

Geochemical studies generate large quantities of samples to be analyzed in the laboratory. Although technological advances have produced vast improvements in analytical measurements and data reduction, the manual preparation of samples has remained a time-consuming problem. As a result, one of the most rapidly growing areas in laboratory automation is the use of robotics for sample preparation.

Photo of laboratory robot.What does a robot have in common with a technician? An arm, hand, and fingers. The robots arm moves up/down, in/out, and rotates 360°. [64k]

Photo of laboratory hand holding a test tube. The fingers grip tubes and flasks, and the hand rotates for pouring liquids. [78k]

A laboratory robot generally consists of an arm, a hand, and a pair of fingers. These components are programmed to duplicate the sample preparation usually performed by a laboratory technician. The centrally positioned robot moves samples in and out of laboratory work stations. Each work station performs a specific function such as dispensing acids, mixing, heating, centrifuging, filtering, and weighing.

There are several advantages to the use of robotics. Robots have improved productivity by a factor of 2 or 3. Because sample preparation requires the use of hazardous chemicals, the robot minimizes human exposure to these chemicals. By delegating the repetitive applications to the robot, the technician is available to assume greater responsibilities. Finally, robots provide consistency in sample preparation and improve the precision of the data.

In USGS laboratories, robotics have been applied to a range of techniques including sample disaggregation, the decomposition of tens of thousands of samples per year for the ICP-AES methods, the weighing of 7,000 charges of flux per year for the XRF major element analyses method, and other similar sample preparation methods. The use of laboratory robotics continues to increase as the benefits from each application are realized.

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