Popeye’s spinach can also help generate electricity, says study

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popeye spinach

If you watch Popeye the Sailor Man, you know that Popeye got his energy from spinach. Now researchers from Technion—Israel Institute of Technology show that they can use spinach leaves to help generate electricity. The finding is published in Nature Communications.

In the study, researchers use a simple membrane extract from spinach leaves to develop a bio-photo-electro-chemical (BPEC) cell that produces electricity and hydrogen from water using sunlight.

The unique combination of a man-made BPEC cell and plant membranes can absorb sunlight and convert it into a flow of electrons. It helps with the development of new technologies to create clean fuels from renewable sources: water and solar energy.

The BPEC cell developed in the study is based on the natural photosynthesis in plants. In this process, light drives electrons to produce molecules that can store chemical energy. The chemical energy is the fuels of all cells in the animal and plant worlds.

To use photosynthesis to produce electricity, researchers added an iron-based compound to the solution. This compound transfers electrons from the biological membranes to the electrical circuit, and it helps create electric current in the cell.

The electrical current can also form hydrogen gas through electric power from a small solar PV cell that absorbs the excess light. This makes it possible to convert solar energy into chemical energy stored inside the BPEC cell.

When needed, the energy can be converted into heat and electricity by burning the hydrogen. One advantage of this method is that it does not emit any greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

Therefore, this is a closed cycle that begins with water and ends with water. It allows the conversion and storage of solar energy in hydrogen gas.

Researchers suggest that the combination of natural (leaves) and artificial (PV cell and electronic components) is a complex engineering challenge. The current study achieves this goal, and hydrogen gas can be a clean and sustainable substitute for hydrocarbon fuel.

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Citation: Pinhassi PI, et al. (2016). Hybrid bio-photo-electro-chemical cells for solar water splitting. Nature Communications, 7: 12552. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms12552.
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