In a modest, two-story office building in the heart of Silicon Valley, a series of experiments that could change forever how scientists hunt for new materials is taking place. In one lab, a robotic arm sealed within a tabletop-sized vacuum chamber is intent on synthesizing electronic compounds. The robot selects a ceramic wafer from what looks like a small stack of compact discs and draws the wafer to a central chamber a foot away. A beam of electrons blasts the disc, blowing ceramic vapor against tiny squares on a shiny silicon wafer. Shutters inside the vacuum chamber click open and closed to control precisely how much of the vapor hits each square. The robot puts the first ceramic disc away and selects another. The process is repeated until the silvery wafer is coated with dark squares, each a potential new high-temperature superconductor.
Down the hall, another diminutive robotic arm whisks back and forth across a benchtop. The arm’s needle-shaped tip squirts a few drops into dozens of wells positioned in a plastic tray the size of a paperback book. Each well holds a different mix of chemicals and, before long, each will contain a type of plastic never made before. One of those novel polymers could become a choice material for high-strength structures, electrical insulation, or biological implants.
Welcome to the headquarters of a startup called Symyx-and perhaps to the future of materials prospecting. In this new strategy, borrowed from chemistry and biotechnology, automated machines rapidly synthesize and sift through anywhere from dozens to tens of thousands of novel materials in hopes of hitting pay dirt. It is a big change from how materials scientists have traditionally worked, following precise recipes-and occasional spurts of inspiration-to mix chemicals in test tubes tediously cooking up new materials one at a time.