Solar-powered artificial leaf can allow drug production

Solar-powered artificial leaf can allow drug production

A team of researchers from the Netherlands have developed a first-of-its-kind synthetic leaf that can act as a mini-factory for drugs that would allow production of life-saving medicines anywhere there is sunlight.

The researcher led by Timothy Noel, of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, managed to tap into plants’ photosynthesis-based food-producing abilities.

They made use of a leaf-inspired micro-factory mimicking nature’s efficiency at harvesting solar radiation. To do that, they used new material called luminescent solar concentrator (LSC).

Light-sensitive molecules in LSCs concentrate sunlight and capture huge amounts of solar radiation and eventually convert it into a specific color before carrying it toward the edges.

Noel and colleagues coupled the LSCs with tremendously thin channels through which liquid can be pumped. Then they pumped liquid chemicals through those channels in the leaf-shaped silicon rubber LSC. The process allowed incoming sunlight to come into contact with the molecules in the liquid, triggering chemical reactions.

Sharing the findings of their research, Noel said, “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.”

The solar-powered artificial leaf would be highly useful to produce medicines in remote places such as on planet Mars, which is expected to be colonized by humans within next few decades.

A report published by IB Times informed, "Although the experiment is still largely in its proof-of-concept stage and it would be years before it can be scaled up to a level where it’s economically viable and efficient, the researchers believe that by using visible light, the reactions needed to manufacture drugs can become much cheaper and countless times faster."

The research paper informed...

Thin channels
The researchers, led by Dr. Timothy Noël, 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. In this way they were able to bring the incoming sunlight into contact with the molecules in the liquid with high enough intensity to generate chemical reactions.

Surpassed
While the reaction they chose serves as an initial example, the results surpassed all their expectations, and not only in the lab. “Even an experiment on a cloudy day demonstrated that the chemical production was 40 percent higher than in a similar experiment without LSC material”, says research leader Noël. “We still see plenty of possibilities for improvement. 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.”

Using sunlight to make chemical products has long been a dream of many a chemical engineer. The problem is that the available sunlight generates too little energy to kick off reactions. However, nature is able to do this. Antenna molecules in leaves 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).

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