Dutch scientists have developed an artificial leaf that can act as a mini-factory for producing drugs, an advance that could allow medicines to be produced anywhere there is sunlight.
The work taps into the ability of plants to use sunlight to feed themselves through photosynthesis, something industrial chemists have struggled to replicate because sunshine usually generates too little energy to fuel chemical reactions.
The leaf-inspired micro factory mimics nature’s efficiency at harvesting solar radiation by using new materials called luminescent solar concentrators with very thin channels through which liquid is pumped, exposing molecules to sunlight.
“Theoretically, you could use this device to make drug compounds with solar energy anywhere you want,” said lead researcher Timothy Noel at Eindhoven University of Technology.
By doing away with the need for a power grid, it may be possible one day to make malaria drugs in the jungle or even medicines on Mars in some future space colony, he believes.
The device, made from silicone rubber, can operate even when there is diffuse light, which means it will work under cloudy skies. However, there is still a way to go to scale up the process to make it commercially viable.
Noel and his colleagues, who published their research in the science journal Angewandte Chemie last week, are now trying to improve energy efficiency further and increase output.
Because the artificial leaf relies on micro-channels to bring chemicals into direct contact with sunlight, each unit needs to be small - but they could be easily linked together to increase production.
“You can make a whole tree with many, many different leaves placed in parallel,” Noel told Reuters. “These are very cheap things to make, so there is a lot of potential.”
He thinks the process could start to become broadly available to chemical engineers within five to 10 years.
It is not the first time that scientists have drawn inspiration from plants when considering novel ways to manufacture pharmaceuticals.
In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a drug called Elelyso from Pfizer and Protalix Biotherapeutics for Gaucher disease, a rare genetic condition, made with genetically modified carrot cells.
Amazon files patent for flying warehouse
Amazon has filed a patent for massive flying warehouses equipped with fleets of drones that deliver goods to key locations.
Carried by an airship, the warehouses would visit places Amazon expects demand for certain goods to boom.
It says one use could be near sporting events or festivals where they would sell food or souvenirs to spectators.
The patent also envisages a series of support vehicles that would be used to restock the flying structures.
The filing significantly expands on Amazon’s plans to use drones to make deliveries. Earlier this month it made the first commercial delivery using a drone via a test scheme running in Cambridge.
In the documents detailing the scheme, Amazon said the combination of drones and flying warehouses, or “airborne fulfillment centres”, would deliver goods much more quickly than those stationed at its ground-based warehouses.
Also, it said, the drones descending from the AFCs - which would cruise and hover at altitudes up to 45,000ft (14,000m) - would use almost no power as they glided down to make deliveries.
Many firms working on drones are struggling with ways to extend their relatively short range, which is typically dependent on the size of the battery they carry.
The patent lays out a comprehensive scheme for running a fleet of AFCs and drones. It suggests smaller airships could act as shuttles taking drones, supplies and even workers to and from the larger AFCs.
Amazon has not responded to a request for comment about the patent.
It is not clear whether the filing is a plan for a project that will be realised or just a proof-of-concept. Many firms regularly file patents that never end up becoming real world products or services.
Amazon’s patent was filed in late 2014 but has only now come to light thanks to analyst Zoe Leavitt from CB Insights who unearthed the documents.