Scientists in The Netherlands have developed a prototype mini-medicine factory using an artificial leaf that they claim is capable of producing medicines at some of the most remote places on Earth and even on other planets.
Scientists have been working on artificial leaves that capture sunlight to produce power and while they have been successful, we are still decades away from managing to achieve efficiency levels that plants showcase through their photosynthesis process. Generation of power at high efficiency levels by imitating plants will help solve our energy vows, but why not adapt the solutions we already have to do much more than just generate power?
That’s exactly what researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) did when they designed, built and demoed a unique mini-factory that channels sunlight onto an artificial leaf to produce medicines from chemicals. Published in journal Angewandte Chemie is a new study wherein scientists at the university have shown how it is possible to channel the otherwise not so powerful rays of the Sun at specific places on the leaves to make them high-energy rays and then kick off a chemical reaction that will eventually help us produce medicines.
Scientists note that the major problem with artificial leaves and chemical reactions is that the available sunlight generates too little energy to kick off reactions. But plants are able to do them and the methodology adopted by plants is to have antenna molecules capture energy from sunlight and collect it in the reaction centers of the leaf where enough solar energy is present for the chemical reactions that give the plant its food (photosynthesis).
Authors of the study took inspiration from these molecules and found new materials, known as luminescent solar concentrators (LSC’s), which are able to capture sunlight in a similar way. As scientists explain, the material has special light-sensitive molecules that capture large amount of the incoming light that they then convert into a specific color that is conducted to the edges via light conductivity. These LSC’s are often used in practice in combination with solar cells to boost the yield.
Led by Dr. Timothy Noël, researchers combined the idea of an LSC with their knowledge of microchannels, incorporating very thin channels in a silicon rubber LSC through which a liquid can be pumped. The team was able to bring the incoming sunlight into contact with the molecules in the liquid with high enough intensity to generate chemical reactions.
Researchers are optimistic that their invention will enable us to one day get rid of those toxic chemicals and ample of fossil fuel energy required to make medicines and other such products. Using visible light makes the whole process a lot more sustainable, cheap, environment friendly and much more faster.
“Using a reactor like this means you can make drugs anywhere, in principle, whether malaria drugs in the jungle or paracetamol on Mars”, said Noël. “All you need is sunlight and this mini-factory.”