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Artificial Leaf Can Act As Mini-Factory Of Drugs Anywhere There Is Sunlight

21 December 2016, 8:27 pm EST By Allan Adamson Tech Times
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An artificial leaf powered by sunlight copies nature's ability to produce food through photosynthesis. The device can be used to produce drug compounds in remote places such as planet Mars.  ( Bart van Overbeeke | TU Eindhoven )

It may one day be possible to produce drugs in remote places such as in planet Mars and in jungles using a sun-powered artificial leaf. Researchers have developed a synthetic leaf that can act as mini-factory for drugs that would allow production of medicines anywhere there is sunlight.

Replicating Nature's Ability To Produce Food

Industrial chemists had difficulty replicating the ability of plants to use sunlight to produce food through photosynthesis. This is because sunshine often produces too little energy to fuel chemical reactions.

Timothy Noel, from Eindhoven University of Technology in Netherlands, and colleagues, however, were able to tap into the food-producing abilities of plants.

The researchers used a leaf-inspired micro-factory that mimics the efficiency of nature at harvesting solar radiation. They were able to do this using new material known as luminescent solar concentrator, or LSC.

Luminescent Solar Concentrators

The light-sensitive molecules in LSCs concentrate sunlight, capturing large amounts of incoming solar radiation and convert this into a specific color before conducting it toward the edges.

The researchers coupled the LSCs with very thin channels through which liquid can be pumped. Noel and colleagues then pumped liquid chemicals through the microchannels in the leaf-shaped silicon rubber LSC, which allowed incoming sunlight to come into contact with the molecules in the liquid in high intensity to trigger chemical reactions.

"We now have a powerful tool at our disposal that enables the sustainable, sunlight-based production of valuable chemical products like drugs or crop protection agents," Noel said.

Mini-Factory Of Medicines That Can Work In Remote Locations

The artificial leaf could make it possible one day to produce malaria drugs in the jungles or even paracetamol in Mars that can be used by astronauts or human colonizers on the arid red planet.

The device does away with a need for a power grid since it relies on solar power. It only needs sunlight to work as a mini-factory of drugs. It can likewise operate with diffused light so it can still be used under cloudy skies.

"Theoretically, you could use this device to make drug compounds with solar energy anywhere you want," Noel said.

The researchers acknowledge that there is still more work to be done to scale up the process so it could become commercially viable. They are now attempting to improve the energy efficiency of the artificial leaf further to boost the output.

Researchers published their findings in the journal Angewandte Chemie on Dec. 21.

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