Astronauts who will be included in NASA's manned missions to Mars would need access to life-saving drugs should they get sick on the red planet. A synthetic leaf developed by researchers from Netherlands could be used as a mini-factory that can produce medicines for humans in space.

Solar-Powered Synthetic Leaf

Timothy Noel, from Eindhoven University of Technology in Netherlands, and colleagues developed an artificial leaf that uses luminescent solar concentrators (LSCs) to mimic nature's photosynthetic ability. LSCs can capture sunlight much like real leaves, convert it to a specific color and transport it to where it is needed.

Researchers have long wanted to use sunlight to produce chemical products just as how nature taps on solar power to produce food through photosynthesis. Researchers, however, have been unable to use available sunlight to produce adequate amount of energy to trigger reactions.

"This device based on fluorescent dye-doped polydimethylsiloxane collects sunlight, focuses the energy to a narrow wavelength region, and then transports that energy to embedded microchannels where the flowing reactants are converted." Noel and colleagues wrote about their leaf-inspired photomicroreactor.

Although the synthetic leaf is still largely in a proof-of-concept stage, the researchers think that with the device's ability to use sunlight, it can be used as a mini-factory that can produce chemical products such as medicines.

The chemical reactions needed for producing drugs currently need a lot of energy from fossil fuels and toxic chemicals. With visible light, the same reactions needed to produce drugs can become sustainable, cheap, and possibly faster.

Noel said that devices such as theirs can make it possible to make drugs anywhere there is sunlight and these include remote and even extraterrestrial locations.

Medicines For Mars Mission Astronauts

An improved version of the researchers' device can be particularly useful for planned missions to send humans to Mars

Astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have access to medicine kits, advanced medical diagnostic and emergency resuscitation equipment. Sick astronauts can also be ferried back to Earth, an option that would be very costly and difficult for Mars mission astronauts given the distance between the red planet and Earth.

In instances that astronauts run out of medicines while stationed at Mars, the ability to produce medicines could be crucial. The technology used by the solar-powered artificial leaf can potentially make a difference.

"Using a reactor like this means you can make drugs anywhere, in principle, whether malaria drugs in the jungle or paracetamol on Mars. All you need is sunlight and this mini-factory," Noel said.

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