Most of the medicines today are manufactured in large factories. But the day is not too far when we would be able to produce common drugs on a small scale anywhere on the planet and beyond, as long as there is sunlight. A group of scientists in the Netherlands has developed an artificial leaf that can produce medicines almost anywhere.

Artificial Leaf
Eindhoven University of Technology / YouTube video (screenshot)

LSCs helped scientists overcome a major hurdle

The sun-powered artificial leaf reactor is inspired by real leaves that turn sunlight into food through a process called photosynthesis. Until now, industrial chemists have struggled to replicate photosynthesis to make chemical products because the available sunlight does not provide enough energy to trigger chemical reactions. Real leaves can do this because antenna molecules in them capture energy from the sunlight and store it in reaction centers where there is enough solar energy for chemical reactions to take place.

Scientists at the Eindhoven University of Technology used materials that could capture and store sunlight for later use, just like real leaves. These materials, called luminescent solar concentrators (LSCs), are already used to enhance the performance of solar cells. The light-sensitive molecules in LSCs capture the sunlight, convert it into a specific color, and conduct it towards the edges.

It works even under cloudy skies

The breakthrough came when the LSCs were combined with thin micro-channels through which the chemicals are pumped, bringing them in contact with light energy to trigger chemical reactions. Dr. Timothy Noël, the lead author of the study, said the device works even when there is diffuse light, which means it can operate even under cloudy skies.

Dr. Timothy Noël said in a statement that the artificial leaf’s chemical production was about 40% higher than the rate shown by similar experiments without LSCs. However, there is still a long way to go before it can be scaled up into a commercially viable method. The Dutch scientists are working to enhance its energy efficiency and output. Since the artificial leaf depends on micro-channels to bring chemicals in contact with the sunlight stored by LSCs, the units need to be small. But they can be linked together to beef up production.

The artificial leaf can produce drugs even on Mars

Scientists said that you could use the artificial leaf to make drugs with solar energy anywhere you want. Dr. Timothy Noël believes it might be possible one day to produce medicines on Mars in a future space colony. He said the method would become broadly available to chemical engineers in 5-10 years. Findings of the study were published Wednesday in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

It certainly has a lot of potential. Currently, drugs are produced using toxic chemicals (well, sometimes) and energy in the form of fossil fuels. The artificial leaf requires only sunlight to trigger chemical reactions.