Formulation With Real Intelligence

By Dr Jim Bullock, April 2023

There has been a lot of recent debate about the opportunities and pitfalls of using artificial intelligence (AI) and a lot of discussion about the possible impact on journalism, literature and the arts. Rather less of the debate has been about its impact on science and technology. To see whether the popular generic AI tools could be of use and interest, I had a play with the (in)famous ChatGPT and asked it a question of the sort a typical formulator might ask. I decided to ask ChatGPT to write a detailed recipe for the manufacture of an oil dispersion (OD) formulation containing the herbicide nicosulfuron as the active ingredient. It’s a tricky question but not an unreasonable one, as several agrochemical companies do produce formulations of this type based on that particular active ingredient. Below you can see the response I got. Let’s see what it got right, what it left out and what looks decidedly odd.

First of all, it has chosen some reasonable ingredients, but although I asked for a “detailed” recipe, the list is a bit generic. Including a mineral oil solvent is reasonable and OD formulations do typically include at least one surfactant to act as a dispersing agent in the oil phase as well as a second surfactant to emulsify the oil phase when diluted in water in the spray tank. But as a formulator I have to choose from many hundreds of possible candidate surfactants and this recipe doesn’t really tell me where to start, nor does it suggest what amounts of ingredients to use. I’d also be worried about the tendency of dispersions to settle out, and I’d ask myself whether a rheology modifier might be needed in this case.

Moving on to the equipment, again the list is a bit generic. Typically, the particles of active ingredient have to be ground down to a few µm in size, in order to provide a stable dispersion formulation. The recipe doesn’t include any milling equipment which is surprising. Also surprising is the use of a centrifuge to “homogenize” the formulation. Correct me if I am wrong, but centrifuges are usually used to separate particles from liquids, the opposite of homogenizing them. Then there’s the use of a pH meter. Although ChatGPT has correctly worked out that this is an oil-based formulation, I think that formulators would struggle to get a meaningful pH measurement on a formulation with a mineral oil as the solvent.

So, what have we got? Well, although we can recognise a few reasonable points, it looks a bit like the results from multiple search engine results have been put in a blender and homogenized (and not with a centrifuge) to give us something that we really couldn’t make a start with. A real-life formulator would make proper use of context (for instance “what do we know about formulations of other active ingredients with similar physical properties to this one?”) and sources of both online and offline information to come up with a starting formulation to test. As well as interrogating the scientific literature and patent databases, a formulator might pick up their old-fashioned phone and call some suppliers of co-formulants for recommended surfactants and other ingredients.

So does this mean that AI is of no use to formulators? Well in fact AI is becoming established as a useful formulation design tool, it’s just that successful AI systems can make proper use of context and user data to achieve the desired results. And AI can be combined with automatic high throughput screening and statistical methods. I don’t want to single out any particular company or organisation, but a glance at the speaker list for last years’ SCI event “AI/ML in Formulation Design” will lead the reader to some interesting examples.

Finally, I gave ChatGPT one last chance to redeem itself. As an enthusiast for both science and the arts, I thought I’d ask it to write a Shakespearean sonnet that describes how to formulate a biopesticide. To my non-literary eye, what came back might not be much use as a formulation recipe but it’s quite poetic…well, nearly. All’s well that ends well, I suppose.

“To create a biopesticide, a thing of beauty, A mixture of life and science doth combine. A potion, potent in its duty, That pests may flee and crops may thrive and shine.

Begin by choosing microorganisms kind, That pests do fear and crops do not oppress. With careful culture, their growth we must find, So they may multiply and do possess

The strength to conquer that which doth annoy Our gardens and our fields, both night and day. With love and care, we nurture and employ, Our chosen friends to lead the pests astray.

And when the time is right, we shall release, Our biopesticide, a work of peace.”


ChatGPT response (don’t try this at home)

Oil Dispersion (OD) formulation containing Nicosulfuron herbicide as the active ingredient:


Nicosulfuron (Active ingredient)

Solvent (E.g., Mineral Oil)


Emulsifying agents



Mixing vessel


Measuring beakers or flasks

pH meter



Prepare the solvent by heating it to 40°C to reduce its viscosity.

In the mixing vessel, add the required amount of surfactant and emulsifying agents.

Slowly add the heated solvent to the surfactant and emulsifying agents mixture, stirring continuously.

Add the required amount of nicosulfuron to the mixture and continue to stir.

Adjust the pH of the mixture to 7.0 using a pH meter.

Mix the formulation for 30 minutes to ensure that the ingredients are well dispersed.

Allow the formulation to cool to room temperature.

If required, homogenize the formulation using a centrifuge.

Add the required amount of antioxidants to the formulation and mix well.

The OD formulation is now ready for use. Store it in a cool, dry place, and shake well before use.

Note: The above recipe is a general guideline, and the exact proportions of the ingredients may vary depending on the specific application requirements.