Our sun is an incredible, abundant source of energy that we’re only just now beginning to learn how to tap. Plants, on the other hand, are masters at exploiting the free energy delivered from the sky, so it’s only natural that scientists look to them for inspiration. Now, an ongoing effort from researchers with the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands has yielded a promising new type of artificial leaf. Like actual foliage, the faux leaves take in sunlight and use it to create something entirely new, only instead of generating fuel for a living plant, these “mini-reactors” can produce medicine for humans.
Artificial Leaves in the Initial Point of Research
The research team has been working on this artificial leaf system for some time, first presenting a prototype back in 2016. Now, the technology has been refined and the researchers say that the colorful fake foliage can be used to create just about any kind of drug imaginable. The scientists succeeded because of a trick that they duplicated from leaves in nature. They designed very thin channels in so-called Luminescent Solar Concentrators (LSCs), a silicon rubber, much in the manner in which veins go through a leaf.
Taking cues from Mother Nature, the tiny reactors utilize intricate channels that flow like veins through the leaves. When sunlight hits certain liquids flowing through the leaves it sparks a chemical reaction. This is a process that would normally require electric power, harsh chemicals or both, but by using sunlight to power the medicine production, it becomes much more sustainable.
Scientists at Eindhoven University of Technology have created microreactors that use sunlight to catalyse chemical reactions.
The greater utilization of Natural Energy Source
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 this newly designed reactor, scientists replaced silicone rubber with PMMA (Poly Methyl Methacrylate or Plexiglas). The PMMA material is cheaper and readily available. It also has a higher refractive index, so that the light stays better confined.
The scientists envision such systems being used in places where medicine is in short supply and producing it on-site is difficult. During the study, scientists showed the versatility of the reactor by completing various chemical reactions. Two of these comprise the production of a drug: the antimalarial artemisinin and ascaridole, a defense against parasitic worms. Producing anti-malaria drugs in the jungle without a power grid could become much easier thanks to these advancements.
“There are hardly any obstacles to putting this technology in practice, except for the fact that it only works during daylight,” says Timothy Noel.“Artificial leaves are perfectly scalable; where there is the sun, it works. The reactors can be easily scaled and its inexpensive and self-powered nature makes them ideally suited for the cost-effective production of chemicals with solar light.”
Artificial leaves leading way to Greener Pharma in no time
The people in India have outstanding knowledge of medicinal plants that acquired over the centuries. A passion for studying medicinal plants is evident both in folk and scholarly traditions. The indigenous mode of understanding and using plants is different from the modern scientific way. It includes botanical, medical and astrological elements. This is the basis of the green pharmacy.
Indians obviously care for medicinal plants because they know so many of them, so much about them and have worked extensively on their application. It is a remarkable fact that the use of medicinal plants is still a living tradition in the form of a million village-based folk carriers. These traditional birth attendants, bonesetters, herbal healers, and wandering monks are invisible to policymakers and therefore not taken into account as a public health resource.
Apart from these specialized folk healers, there are also millions of women and elders with the traditional knowledge of food and nutrition and herbal home remedies. However, the revitalization of this vast and diverse folk tradition does not appear anywhere in the records or agendas. This research can be considered as a great attempt to introduce this traditional knowledge with an emphasis on a promising substance to cure many of the diseases naturally.