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Artificial Leaves Produce Potent Medicine

12/29/16 8:30 AM

Photo: TU Eindhoven / Bart van Overbeeke

Pharmaceutical manufacturing is costly in ways that extend beyond traditional monetary expense. Synthesizing drugs often requires the use of toxic chemicals and large amounts of energy that are drawn from burning fossil fuels. This means that creating beneficial drugs for humans may have an adverse effect on the planet as a whole. In an attempt to simplify and clean up this process, researchers at Eindhoven University in the Netherlands have created a possible solution based on one of nature’s best clean energy producers: the leaves of plants.

As everybody learned in school, plants use their leaves to absorb sunlight in order to create food and energy through a process known as photosynthesis. The researchers at Eindhoven University were inspired by plants’ ability to use sunlight to facilitate complex chemical reactions, even though the scientific establishment has assumed for many years that sunlight is too weak to facilitate meaningful reactions for humans.

The Eindhoven University team, led by Dr. Timothy Noël, created luminescent solar concentrators (LSCs) in the shape of leaves. LSCs are devices that concentrate solar radiation into electricity. They are also a distinct red color, which makes the Eindhoven leaves reminiscent of the maple leaf at the center of the Canadian flag.

Thin channels were then carved into the LSC leaves to mimic the structure and positioning of the veins that occur in organic leaves. Liquids containing the components of vital drugs can then be pumped through those vein-like channels to expose them to a steady flow of concentrated solar energy. By the time those liquids emerge from the other side of the leaf, they’ve been synthesized into valuable medicine.

Dr. Noël refers to the artificial leaves as “mini-factories,” a name that highlights their impressive production capabilities, which exceeded expectations and were more than 40% more effective than non-LSC materials.

While the current design offers a decidedly small-scale process, the value lies in versatility. As long as the leaf has access to sunlight, it can facilitate medicine-creating reactions anywhere: at the beach, in a dense forest, out at sea or even potentially on Mars. Ideally, this LSC leaf technology could be scaled up to reduce the overall environmental impact of pharmaceutical manufacturing processes while maintaining comparable production.

MadgeTech, the New Hampshire data logger company, supports innovation in pharmaceutical development as well as solar energy with a variety of measurement and monitoring solutions. Armed with these instruments, researchers around the world can continue work into exciting and innovative ways to keep people, and the planet, healthy.

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