An artificial reactor by researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology  can produce medicine using the power of sunlight

Artificial leaf could produce paracetamol on Mars

Image credit: Reuters

Dutch researchers have created an artificial leaf that synthesises medicine using the power of sunlight. The low-cost portable technology could be convenient for explorers in remote environments including Mars.

The leaf-shaped chemical reactor, described in the latest issue of the journal Angewandte Chemie, is made of so called luminescent solar concentrators, which capture light in a similar way to natural leaves.

Antenna molecules covering the surface of the natural leaves allow sunlight to be captured and channelled to reaction centres where it powers photosynthesis.

In the artificial leaf, light-sensitive molecules of the luminescent solar concentrators perform the same function. The captured light can be observed as it travels through the leaf towards its edges through specially designed micro-channels. As the light travels through, the channels light up with a red colour. The researchers use the same channels to insert chemicals into the leaf that need to undergo the light-facilitated reaction.

“Even an experiment on a cloudy day demonstrated that the chemical production was 40 per cent higher than in a similar experiment without LSC material,” said Timothy Noël from Eindhoven University of Technology, who led the research. “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.”

The team described the leaf as a ‘mini factory’ that could be used in future to cheaply and sustainably produce medicine anywhere without access to laboratory equipment.

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

The chemical reactions for producing drugs currently require toxic chemicals and a lot of energy that usually comes from fossil fuels. By using visible light the same reactions become sustainable, cheap and, in theory, countless times faster.

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