An innovative system that combines an artificial leaf structure with sunlight can now produce a range of different medicines. How does this system work? How can it contribute to a greener pharmaceutical industry and what can be the potential benefits of upscaling it?

A Sustainable Path For The Pharmaceutical Industry?

A group of researchers from the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands made a discovery that might leave your eyes right open. They found a promising new type of artificial leaf that might help the pharmaceutical industry transition to a more sustainable path.

Leaves and the pharmaceutical industry – what’s the connection? You might wonder. Well, we know natural leaves use sunlight (together with co2, water, nutrients, and chlorophyll) to produce their own food. Instead, these fake leaves are used to produce medicine for humans. And that’s how the pharmaceutical industry gets involved.

According to a SustainAbility Pharma Trends Report, healthcare is seen as one of the sectors with the potential highest overall impact on the successful achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Curious about the possibility of the healthcare sector becoming more sustainable, we dug into the paper published in Angewandte Chemie to be better informed about the potential of these artificial leaves.

Artificial Leaves Producing Medicines

Inspired in natural leaves, the artificial leaves used by this group of scientists absorb sunlight and conduct chemical reactions, working as a mini-reactor. In 2019, these researchers were able to improve on their 2016 prototype and solve the problem of not having enough energy to kick off reactions. This time, they used very thin, silicon rubber-based channels in Luminescent Solar Concentrators (LSCs) – which harvest, down-convert and concentrate solar photons.

These LSCs mimic the veins running from a leaf and end up being an example of biomimicry, which put simply means learning and being inspired by nature. So as the sunlight activates the molecules of the liquids running through the thin channels/veins, a chemical reaction gets started.

To wrap up, as Noel et. al say in the study’s abstract, they were able to prove that a set of photon-driven transformations can be efficiently powered by solar radiation. For this, they used solvent-resistant luminescent solar concentration based photomicroreactors. Blue, green, and red reactors can accommodate both homogeneous and multi phase reaction conditions, including photochemical oxidations, photocatalytic trifluoromethylation chemistry, and metallaphotoredox transformations, thus spanning applications over the entire visible-light spectrum.

The Benefits Of Using Artificial Leaves As A Technology For Medicine

Let’s start by recapping. As we’ve discussed right at the beginning, these artificial leaves can help the pharmaceutical industry become more sustainable. Looking at pharma today, it uses many toxic chemicals to produce drugs, as well as fossil fuels as energy for its operations. By using sunlight the production of drugs has, in theory, the potential to be more sustainable.

Another benefit has to do with price – meaning the artificial leaves can produce medicine cheaply. Scientists working on the leaves mention the operations as a cheap self-optimization system. Also, they replaced the silicon rubber of the LSC by a cheaper material that’s easier to make in large quantities.

At the same time, fundamental too for the credibility of this technology, especially when seen from a large scale perspective, has to do with guaranteeing the system’s stability. In practice, this means ensuring that even in the absence of sunlight (for instance, when a cloud is passing by) the process keeps steady – something the team was able to successfully guarantee back in 2018 with the extra benefit of improving yields by 20%.

The Potential For Medicine Everywhere, And Also As A CSR Strategy


Moreover, the artificial leaves system can also be used for a range of different chemical reactions. The two most proudly mention are the production of the antimalarial drug artemisinin and, as well, the protection against parasitic worms called ascaridole. Nonetheless, plenty of chemical reactions can be achieved by using different types of light-sensitive molecules.

The fact that the system is easily scalable and is able to produce medicine everywhere with the only requirement of having sunlight as the energy source is also a great point. It allows for the in-house production of drugs in places where they can’t be easily found. And as he wraps up the study’s main findings, Van Der Meer suggests we imagine producing malaria drugs in the jungle or paracetamol on Mars.

So this looks like a promising technology – cheap, easy to scale up, uses solar energy and can be set in a range of different places where it’s hard for drugs to get to. Perhaps this can be an interesting bet, from a commercial upscaling point of view, for pharmaceutical companies wanting to improve their CSR strategy?

Image credits: Shutterstock & Technical University of Eindhoven