Scientists from the Eindhoven University of Technology have created an artificial leaf that uses the power of the sun to create cheap medicines. The team says that their tech is a “mini-reactor” that is similar to real leaves in nature that can absorb sunlight to drive chemical reactions. The team has been able to get the artificial leaves to create two types of medicine.
One medicine is the antimalarial artemisinin, and the other is an antiparasitic drug called ascaridole. The team says that the tech can be easily scaled up and can be used for a wide range of chemical reactions. The tech maintains stable production under changing weather conditions.
The tech is said to be ready for commercial upscaling and promises to make the pharmaceutical industry much more green. The artificial leaves were designed with very thin channels inside called a Luminescent Solar Concentrator (LSC) in silicon rubber like the veins that run through leaves. The sunlight activates the molecules of the liquid running through the microchannels and starts a chemical reaction.
The combination of confining light and the microchannels make the light intense enough for reactions to take place. The latest version of the reactor replaces the silicone rubber with plexiglass. The team says the material is cheaper and easier to make in quantities. It also has a higher refractive index, so the light stays better confined. The most significant change with the new material is that the team can now add more types of light-sensitive molecules.
The team says that the reactor has the potential to solve a big issue for the pharmaceutical industry – the pressure to produce sustainably. Currently, the chemical reactions for creating drugs require toxic chemicals, and a lot of energy gained typically from fossil fuel use.