Artificial leaf uses captured light to make drugs

The tiny artificial leaves you see here are not cute little toys, these are mini-factories that are capable of manufacturing drugs anywhere. They would function just as well in the deepest jungle as they would on the surface of Mars. The design of the artificial leaves is patterned after the way leaves on a tree capture sunlight to make food.

Engineers at Eindhoven University of Technology have created these artificial leaves and described the creation in the journal Angewandte Chemie. A creation of this sort is something that engineers have been working on for years. Real leaves are able to capture enough sunlight and use that light for chemical reactions that give the plant food.

The researchers made an artificial version of a real leaf using a material known as luminescent solar concentrators (LSCs) that are able to capture sunlight in a manner similar to real leaves. The light-sensitive molecules in the LSCs capture lots of the incoming light and convert that light into a specific color that is conducted to the edges of the artificial leaves.

Researcher Dr. Timothy Noel combined the idea of an LSC with microchannels, which are thin channels in a silicon rubber LSC that liquid can be pumped through. This allowed the captured sunlight to contact molecules in the liquid with enough intensity to cause chemical reactions.

"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 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."

You can read more about this leaf in the scientific publication Angewandte Chemie under the title "A Leaf-Inspired Luminescent Solar Concentrator for Energy-Efficient Continuous-Flow Photochemistry." This paper can be found with code DOI: 10.1002/anie.201611101 and was written by Dario Cambié, Fang Zhao, Prof. Dr. Volker Hessel, Dr. Michael G. Debije, and Dr. Timothy Noël.