Acceleration Consortium funds $1.2 million worth of research projects powered by self-driving labs

From joint replacements to sustainable chemical manufacturing, U of T projects aim to develop new materials that could yield scientific breakthroughs

U of T Engineering researcher Yu Zou’s effort to develop improved materials for hip and knee replacements is among 12 projects receiving funding through the Acceleration Consortium (photo by Neil Ta)

Canada’s aging population is placing a host of new stressors on the health-care system, including an increasing number of hip and knee replacements that, in a best-case scenario, will last a maximum of 25 years using current materials.

With people living longer, that means there will be more subsequent surgeries to fix or replace the replacements — adding even more stress on the system.

New materials are needed to help solve this problem – and self-driving labs, or SDLs, can help. The labs combine artificial intelligence, robotics and advanced computing to discover new materials and molecules for commercial, clinical and industrial use in a fraction of the usual time and cost.

Yu Zou, an assistant professor in the department of materials science and engineering in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, is using an SDL to rapidly test combinations of elements in his quest to develop alloys that can be used in longer-lasting joint replacements.

His work is just one example of the problems being tackled by scientists who have received a total of $1.2 million in Accelerate Grants through the Acceleration Consortium, a U of T institutional strategic initiative that is accelerating the discovery of new materials using SDL technologies.

The Acceleration Consortium is funding a diverse array of research efforts across nine departments in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, the Faculty of Arts & Science, the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and the University of Toronto Scarborough. Zou’s research is one of 12 new research projects that are either developing technologies that will support the development of SDLs or using SDL technologies to accelerate discovery.

Made possible by the $200 million grant from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) awarded to the Acceleration Consortium last April – the largest federal research grant ever awarded to a Canadian university – the projects enabled by the grant promise innovative advances in fields ranging from health care and climate change to sustainable materials design and food waste management.

“Using AI and automation to carry out more laboratory experiments in a smarter way, we’ve supercharged the process of scientific discovery,” said Alán Aspuru-Guzik¸ director of the Acceleration Consortium and professor in the departments of chemistry and computer science in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “These 12 Accelerate Grants are not only an investment in science, but are an investment in our future.

“The creativity and the diversity of thought shown by the researchers on these projects tells me that the materially different future that the Acceleration Consortium is striving for is achievable in our lifetime.”

The Acceleration Consortium awarded the 12 grants in three categories: Accelerate Seed, which builds accelerated discovery capacity at U of T by helping faculty members enter the field or collaborate with those already doing accelerated discovery; Accelerate Moonshot, which support high-risk, high-reward grants that will make significant contributions to the development or use of SDLs; and Accelerate Translation, which support accelerated discovery projects with clear commercialization goals and viable market potential, as well as the implementation or scaling of knowledge mobilization activities, training, and community engagement.

“This suite of Acceleration Grants is an excellent example of how the Acceleration Consortium is advancing the globally recognized strategic research mission of the University of Toronto in a way that’s critical for Canada to remain competitive on the international stage,” said Leah Cowen, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives. “By enabling the next generation of scientists to use self-driving labs and fostering research collaboration and partnerships between departments and institutions, these grants will enable the recipients to conduct high-impact, interdisciplinary accelerated research to discover materials that will improve our world.

“I congratulate the principal investigators and their teams who are leading these varied investigations, and I look forward to seeing their results in the accelerated timeline now made possible in part by CFREF and the remarkable demonstration of support for their work.”

While the CFREF funding will help to further advancements made by several researchers who are recognized as leaders in their fields, most support is going to early-career scientists who are pioneering new discoveries just as SDL technology is emerging as a revolutionary approach to knowledge.

Projects dedicated to the continuous improvement of SDL technology are also being funded. For example, a project by Nandita Vijaykumar, an assistant professor in the department of computer and mathematical sciences at U of T Scarborough, will develop software that can better manage the fast-flowing data streams SDLs create as well as the resources required to run the experiments.

“The work our grant recipients are doing will help us ensure that the Greater Toronto Area and Canada remain world leaders in AI-frontier discovery,” said Aspuru-Guzik. “And we’re doing so with innovative contributions from people at every stage of their career, with an eye to developing the next generation of groundbreaking researchers along the way. No one is resting on their laurels; each grant recipient and member of the AC is pushing the edge of what is possible and is working towards a materially better future.”

The Acceleration Consortium will welcome proposals for its next funding competition in summer 2024.

Read the story and full list of grant recipients at the Acceleration Consortium

Read the story and full list of grant recipients at the Faculty of Arts & Science

Arts & Science/Acceleration Consortium