Making medicine in artificial leaves with sunlight
Researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands developed a mini-reactor that, similar to leaves in nature, absorbs sunlight and drives chemical reactions, which can used to produce medicine.
The researchers is based on an earlier prototype from 2016, which was made as an example in overcoming the core obstacle of using solar energy to make chemical products. The available sunlight generated too little energy to kick off reactions, which was overcome by designing very thin channels made from so-called Luminescent Solar Concentrators (LSCs), a silicone rubber, similar to the way veins runs through a leaf.
Sunlight activates the molecules of the liquids running through the microchannels and starts a chemical reaction. The combination of confining light and the microchannels made the light intensity high enough for the reactions to take place.
In the current model, the silicone rubber is replaced by PMMA (Poly(methyl methacrylate) or Plexiglas), which is cheaper and easy to make in large quantities. It also contains the light better and allows for more types of light-sensitive molecules to be added.
The current versions of the reactors can make two types of medicine, antimalarial artimesinin and ascaridole, a defence against parasitic worms. The reactors make it possible to produce medicine in hard to reach places, like malaria drugs in the jungle, but even paracetamol on Mars would be possible.
The reactor has the potential to solve the increasing pressure to produce in a sustainable way for the pharmaceutical industry. Rather than toxic chemicals and fossil fuels, drugs can be made sustainable, cheap, and theoretically much faster.
Timothy Noël, one of the researchers, comments: “Artificial leaves are perfectly scalable; where there is sun, it works. The reactors can be easily scaled, and its inexpensive and self-powered nature make them ideally suited for the cost-effective production of chemicals with solar light. I am therefore very positive that we should be able to run a commercial trial of this technology within a year. All this would require is a partnership with a pharmaceutical company that is interested to continue this journey with us.”
PHotos: Eindhoven University of Technology