Sustainable, cheap, drug production using solar energy could be possible anywhere with exposure to sunlight, say researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology. Jim Drury reports.
Using sunlight to make drugs has long been a dream of chemical engineers. But generating enough energy to begin chemical reactions has been difficult. SOUNDBITE (English) LEAD RESEARCHER, DR. TIMOTHY NOËL, OF EINDHOVEN UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY (TU/E), SAYING: "The problem is here there is a lot of light scattering, due to clouds, due to a lot of buildings, so we needed a harvesting system which could direct the light to the channels - and so we were looking at nature." Eindhoven University of Technology researchers looked at antenna molecules in leaves that harvest light, via photosynthesis. They then made leaves from silicon rubber, with micro-channels resembling veins. Luminescent solar concentrators inside capture light and produce a reaction with liquid pumped into the veins. SOUNDBITE (English) DARIO CAMBIÉ, POSTGRADUATE STUDENT AT EINDHOVEN UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY (TU/E), SAYING: "Here we have a solution of methylene blue, which is a photocatalyst for example for a single oxygen reaction. That is pumped to the capillary and eventually reaches the inlet of the leaf, and basically fills in the reactor channel to the leaf. The reaction takes place thanks to the photons that are gathered from the leaf and delivered to the reaction channel. Once the reaction is completed, products are continuously removed by the outlet and the stream of the reactor that are flowing in the reactor, so by the use of flow chemistry you can have the efficient removal of the product from the leaf." Lab tests were impressive and offer the potential for producing drugs, without requiring toxic chemicals or external energy. The team says the device could help make drug compounds anywhere - even on Mars. SOUNDBITE (English) LEAD RESEARCHER, DR. TIMOTHY NOËL, OF EINDHOVEN UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY (TU/E), SAYING: "On Mars you have a different atmosphere, so different reaction conditions, but you still have the sun. So what this device does actually is convert all that light again in the samel wavelength, so in the same colour - and so you have actually exactly the same reaction conditions on Mars or whatever planet you want to do this chemistry, exactly the same as on Earth.." Researchers want to increase the leaves' efficiency and scale up the technology. They say it could become widespread within ten years.