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Can an artificial leaf make the pharmaceutical industry greener?

Scientists in the Netherlands have developed a solar reactor that looks and acts like a leaf. By putting chemicals in the artificial leaf’s microchannels, which resemble the veins on a real leaf, and exposing it to sunlight cause solar reactions to create medicine.

“Depending on the choice of chemicals, almost any kind of medicine can be created in a fast and sustainable way,” promises a video on the Eindhoven University of Technology’s website. “Maybe we could be making malaria medication in the middle of a rainforest. Or even a headache pill in outer space.”

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Researchers at Eindhoven University mimicked nature by designing ultra-thin channels running through the faux leaves, which are made of Plexiglas. “This material is cheaper and easy to make in larger quantities,” says Timothy Noël, lead researcher on the team. “It also has a higher refractive index, so that the light stays better confined. But the most important thing is that we can add more types of light-sensitive molecules in (Plexiglas). As a result, in principle all chemical reactions are now possible in this reactor across the entire width of the visible light spectrum.” The current version of the artificial leaf is a refinement of a prototype Noël unveiled in 2016.

So far, the scientists have produced two drugs inside the artificial leaves: the anti-malarial artimensinin and ascaridole, which fights parasitic worms. “Artificial leaves are perfectly scalable; where there is sun, it works,” says Noël. “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.”

If future trials are successful, this small reactor could help solve the pharmaceutical industry’s sustainability problems. Producing and transporting drugs currently requires dangerous chemicals and a lot of fossil fuels.

Via New Atlas

Image via TU/e


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