Sunday, December 25, 2016

Dutch Artificial Leaf Can Make Medicine From Sunlight On Mars

Dutch artificial leaf can make medicine from sunlight on Mars

Eindhoven University of Technology has started a revolution. The theory is: focus sunlight with an artificial leaf, create chemical compounds. Leaves do it all the time, but now it’s a way of making medicines, and maybe much more.

The Eindhoven team has found a sort of Holy Grail of chemistry. This idea of a “chemical plant factory” has been around for a while. Photosynthesis is an incredibly efficient process, and copying it has been tried in many different forms.

This is the first time to my knowledge that it’s been made to work, particularly in such a spectacularly useful way. Making advanced medicines can be a particularly demanding process. Complexities, costs and struggling with new processes aren’t a recipe for efficiency, even with modern manufacturing methods.
The artificial leaves are called luminescent solar concentrators (LSCs) and the result is a go-anywhere source of energy for chemical processes. The LSCs also include storage capacity, which means they can be ready to go whenever and wherever you want.
Coming up with a DIY, go-anywhere way of doing it is a huge leap forward right out of the original ball park. You could build in most of the processes, particularly the high cost processes, directly in to your LSC.
The LSCs can synthesize medicines, in much the same way leaves do. That rather innocent-looking sentence, however, hides a lot of possibilities. Plants use photosynthesis for energy, but the energy drives a virtual encyclopedia of processes creating literally millions of compounds. A huge amount of modern medicine is derived from plant chemistry, so you can see why this is can be a game-changer in multiple ways.
Artificial leaf as a mini-factory for medicines.
Artificial leaf as a mini-factory for medicines.

I’m a horticulturalist, sorry to talk shop, but you can see why. There’s a lot more to this basic idea, and it’s all well worth exploring. The theory of adapting plants to grow specific materials has been around for a while, but this is a new, very broad based range of options.
Plant chemistry can be incredibly complex, and incredibly efficient. The physics are basic enough; the amount of energy equals the potential for creating compounds. Plants can produce practically anything. They also contain a lot of elements for their chemistry, and their adaptions allow them to exploit materials in their environments.
This could revolutionize whole industries, too. Other aspects of plant biology, which could also be artificially created, allow them to extract materials, and process those materials. They can process practically anything. Add an LSC, and you simply need to design the way it processes materials.
The LSC idea goes way beyond pharmaceuticals. Any engineer, accountant or scientist in industry will tell you that the energy cost of making anything is one of the big hurdles for cost-efficiency in any industrial process. The energy costs of electricity are one aspect, but the energy costs of physical processes are also an issue. It’s the costs of the processes, in fact, which drives energy consumption, and the costs of energy consumption. So, eliminate that cost, create a direct link to your process with free energy, and you’re saving a lot of money, time, effort and cost-based neuroses.
LSCs couldn’t have timed their emergence any better. There’s a lot of other tech, notably nanotech, just getting out of the bassinet and taking a few positive steps in its own core dynamics. Add nanotech to an LSC, and in theory, you could have a working plant, in both senses of the word.
Bear in mind that all these options are scalable. You could have an LSC the size of France, or one to carry around in your pocket having fun on Mars or elsewhere, as the Eindhoven guys have suggested. Productivity is built in; set it up, let it work, and you’ve got your products.
This could be a huge cost-saver. Even robotic production can’t match the applied cost-efficiencies in this approach. For consumers, it could mean “cheap everything” This is the equivalent of 3D printing for compounds. In fact, you could create your materials with an LSC, and then print them, in any form.
The future is starting to look a lot more practical. These methods allow any kind of manufacturing to drastically improve efficiencies from baseline production to final product. Keep an eye on this LSC tech, because it’s going to be fundamental to a world which needs better methods for everything within 100 years.
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