A lot of problems that human engineers encounter have already been resolved by nature, so why not utilize those as a jumping-off mark? Building artificial versions of the true leaf has been an ongoing area of research for several years and in a brand new breakthrough, researchers from the Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE) have finely tuned their artificial leaf module and utilized it to produce drugs for the very first time.
Natural leaves are clever tiny machines. They absorb sunlight, and that energy is then utilized by chlorophyll molecules to generate power for a chemical reaction that converts carbon dioxide and water into glucose. The plant utilizes this glucose for energy and eliminates oxygen as a waste product.
Artificial leaves are designed to copy this process. They are made of transparent materials that permit sunlight in and guide it towards tiny microfluidic channels running through the material just like veins do. A specific liquid is gushing through these channels, and the concept is that the energy from the sunlight promotes a chemical reaction in that liquid, converting it into something valuable like a drug or fuel.
The new design of artificial leaf from TUE builds on the crew’s previous prototype, presented in 2016. Back then, the device was crafted of silicon and rubber, while in the newer version that has been replaced with Plexiglas for various reasons.
Timothy Noël who is the lead researcher on the team said that this material is cheaper and not that difficult to make in bigger quantities. He said that it also possesses a higher refractive index so that the light stays better intact.
Yet the most important thing is that we can include more varieties of light-sensitive molecules. The result follows that in a principle, all of the chemical reactions are now very much possible in this reactor through the entire bandwidth of the visible light spectrum.