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Dutch scientists Develop Artificial Leaf To Manufacture Medicine

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 on Wednesday, 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.Other researchers are also cultivating crops that have been specially bred to produce useful medicines and vaccines in their leaves.


Technion Invents Spinach-powered Electricity Cell


‘My dream is to get up in morning, cut the grass, put it into the machine, come back in evening and have enough power to run the home,”

Oil is clearly the devil and hydrogen is evidently the fuel of the future. Now Israeli researchers have developed a “really green” power cell that produces electricity and hydrogen, using nothing but spinach, water and sunlight.We used spinach, but you can use any leaf,” says Prof. Noam Adir of the interdisciplinary Technion team that designed the breakthrough bio-photo-electro-chemical cell.

Why then use a popular salad ingredient rather than hydrangea or pine needles or some other non-crop plant? Convenience, Adir explains. Historically, botanists researched photosynthesis using spinach because while all plants generate sugar from water and sunlight, spinach does so especially well. You can drop by the supermarket and pick some up. Also, spinach keeps well after purchase, meaning that its active components remain active.

The spinach cell may not save Las Vegas’ lights from going out but it could be perfect for remote villages here on earth with modest power needs – or colonies in Mars, Prof. Noam Adir tells Haaretz. This clean, green power machine  emits no contaminants, only spinach membrane slurry, which the brave could eat, the squeamish could use to fertilize gardens in Martian craters or wherever they please, and the indifferent could pour down the sink .

Since spinach is not patentable, for now the cell remains academic. “We are at the stage of investigating its feasibility, whether it would be of applicative interest to anybody,” says the professor. “Patents are only good if you can protect them,” he adds, noting that anybody can drop by the grocer and buy spinach, and the other cell components are nothing special. Essentially the scientists pursued the work, funded chiefly by the Israeli government but also using grants from the American and German federal authorities, because it matters. Rather than operating in stealth mode, as one does with patentable ideas, they published. “We did it because we thought it important,” Adir sums up: “We’re not hiding it. We’re telling the world.”
So they are: the latest findings are reported in “Hybrid bio-photo-electro-chemical cells for solar water splitting,” published this month in the prestigious journal Nature. The study was conducted by doctoral students Roy I. Pinhassi, Dan Kallmann and Gadiel Saper, under the guidance of Adir of the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry, Prof. Gadi Schuster of the Faculty of Biology and Prof. Avner Rothschild of the Faculty of Material Science and Engineering.

“We proved that energy can be made really green using material at negligible cost, with no contaminating synthetics, no expensive or rare or toxic elements,” Adir says.
In order to harness photosynthesis by the spinach membranes to make electricity, the researchers added a non-toxic iron-based compound to the solution in the cell. This iron juice transfers electrons from the membranes to the electrical circuit, known in English as creating a current. The electrical current can be utilized to form hydrogen gas by adding electric power from a small photovoltaic cell that absorbs the excess light. This enables solar energy to be converted into chemical energy that is stored as hydrogen gas formed inside the BPEC cell. This energy can be converted when necessary into heat and electricity by burning the hydrogen, in the same way hydrocarbon fuels are used.

Unlike oil-based fuels, which emit greenhouse gases when burned, the product of hydrogen combustion is clean water. The Technion cell is a closed cycle: it begins with water and ends with water and can be used to produce and store hydrogen gas.Powering the house with the lawn Centralized mass energy production is more efficient, but it creates two key problems. Vast distribution involves vast energy waste in distribution and two, not everybody lives near the grid.This is where the cell could come in: remote places that don’t need a lot of power. “Not like our society which is very energy-intensive. Sometimes all one needs is enough for light and to charge the cellphone. My dream is to get up in morning, cut the grass, put it into the machine, come back in evening and have enough power to run the home,” says Adir.


One issue that may need resolving is shelf life. The membranes in the spinach slush die in 20 minutes, Adir says. “We remove the old membranes, put in new and the machine keeps working. We’re talking about nearly nothing.”Another team working on nearly nothing that could save the planet is at Tel Aviv University, where Assistant Prof. Iftach Yacoby is leading research on engineering microscopic algae to cleanly produce hydrogen.But back to our spinach cell. How much of this nearly nothing will it take to power a house? “A hundred micrograms of spinach membrane shake gives me half a milliamp per centimeter squared of electricity,” he says, and elaborates: “The Israel Electric Corporation might not be impressed but on Mars, where you have to grow food and need oxygen and need hydrogen, this does it all and you can eat the membrane mush too. Or use it to fertilize the Martian soil.”