Leaves are the power plants of a plant, trapping sunlight and then performing photosynthesis to create energy for the plant to thrive. Trying to mimic this natural process, scientists at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) have created a method which produces a natural “reactor” that can create clean electricity and even liquid fuels.
To recreate the light-capturing molecules in the leaves, researchers used luminescent solar concentrators (LSCs). LSCs have been previously used in solar-harvesting window technology and were even used by Facebook to catch and amplify the laser beams in their drone-mounted internet project. LSCs are designed to absorb incoming light, then convert it to a predefined range of wavelengths. These wavelengths then guide the photons to the edges of the device.
The TU/e team used silicon rubber LSC in the shape of a leaf and designed a thin channel running through the middle like a vein. When certain chemicals were pumped through the channel, the LSC material was exposed to sunlight in the hopes of triggering a chemical reaction in the liquid.
This way, the substance that enters would be changed into something else at the other end as the device would convert it into a different chemical, such as a drug, fuel, etc.
“Using a reactor like this means you can make drugs anywhere, in principle, whether malaria drugs in the jungle or paracetamol on Mars,” says Timothy Noël, lead researcher on the study. “All you need is sunlight and this mini-factory.”
The device, if successful, would herald the dawn of a new age in the field of alternative drug production, which currently requires toxic chemicals and a lot of energy from the fossil fuels. The results of the test were beyond team’s expectations regarding efficiency.
“Even an experiment on a cloudy day demonstrated that the chemical production was 40 percent higher than in a similar experiment without LSC material,” says Noël. “We still see plenty of possibilities for improvement. We now have a powerful tool at our disposal that enables the sustainable, sunlight-based production of valuable chemical products like drugs or crop protection agents.”
You can learn more about the research in the journal Angewandte Chemie.