Chemists Just Got Closer To Producing Medicines With Sunlight

Chemists at the Eindhoven University of Technology created a mini reactor that absorbs sunlight to produce a chemical reaction.
Donna Fuscaldo
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Being able to produce medicines that are affordable for everyone is the holy grail for researchers. One group just got a little closer to achieving that goal. 

Chemists at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands produced a so-called mini reactor that absorbs sunlight similar to leaves to drive chemical reactions. The chemists were able to have the reactor produce two medicines: the antimalarial artemisinin and the antiparasitic drug ascaridole.  The research, which was published in  Angewandte Chemieexplains how the reactor can be scaled up and used for a variety of chemical reactions. 


Chemists demonstrate chemical reactions with its mini reactor 

The latest reactor, which was developed by a team led by Timothy Noel, is based on a mini reactor they produced in 2016. To overcome the challenge of getting enough sunlight to spark the reactions, in the past the researchers created very thin channels in Luminescent Solar Concentrators (LSCs), a silicon rubber. The channels are similar to the veins that run through a leaf. Sunlight activates the molecules and starts the chemical reaction.

Last year the team was able to create a system to stabilize the production of the chemical reactions regardless of how much direct sunlight there was. Now, in this iteration, the silicon rubber has been replaced with Poly(methyl methacrylate) or Plexiglas, which is cheaper and easier to produce in volume. Because of a higher refractive index, the light stays confined better. 

"With this reactor, you can make medicines wherever you want," said Noel in the publication. "You only need sunlight and this mini-factory." In the publication the researchers completed different chemical reactions to show how versatile the reactor is. 

Will pharma companies become greener?

While researchers are still in the early stages of producing medicine from this reactor, it does have the potential to help pharmaceutical companies develop ways to make drugs in a greener manner. As it stands toxic chemicals and energy from fossil fuels are required to make drugs. By using sunlight, the researchers argued reactions are sustainable, cheaper and can be made faster. 

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 “There are hardly any obstacles to putting this technology in practice, except for the fact that it only works during daylight," Noel said in a press release issued by the university. "Artificial leaves are perfectly scalable; where there is sun, it works. The reactors can be easily scaled, and its inexpensive and self-powered nature make them ideally suited for the cost-effective production of chemicals with solar light."  

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