By Eddie Wrenn
PUBLISHED: 09:26 EST, 5 September 2012 | UPDATED: 09:26 EST, 5 September 2012
Ask people what they know of spinach’s energy-boosting powers, and most people will start talking about Popeye the Sailor Man.
But in a strange twist, it turns out spinach could be placed into solar panels to create a much greater supply of electricity.
Scientists in Tennessee discovered that combining the green-leafed veg with silicon produced a much stronger electrical current in solar cells than present methods.
And it could eventually lead to a much more efficient form of using the sun’s rays for sustainable energy in the future.
The team of biomolecular engineers and chemists used the photosynthetic protein in spinach – the vital ingredient that converts light into energy to make plants grow.
Then they combined it with silicon, which is already used in solar cells, in a way that produced an electrical current 2.5 times more powerful that existing solar cells.
The team from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee reported their findings to the journal Advanced Materials. They have now applied for a patent for their process.
Lead researcher, chemistry professor David Cliffel, said the new discovery could lead to the production of a new wave of solar cells within three years.
Spinach as we normally see it – on the plate, alongside everyone’s favourite veg-boosted animated sailor man
And unlike previous experiments using the photosynthetic protein (PS1) of plants, the team also reckon to have found a way of making the combination last for much longer with no decline in performance.
Cliffel said: ‘Nature knows how to do this extremely well. In evergreen trees, for example, PS1 lasts for years.
‘We just have to figure out how to do it ourselves.’
To build their cell, the protein was extracted from spinach into an aqueous solution and poured onto the surface of a specially treated wafer of silicon.
This was then put into a vacuum chamber so the water in the solution evaporated but left behind the protein as a tiny, thin, film on the wafer.
The protein, when exposed to light, absorbs the energy contained within the light (photons).
These free electrons huddle together and create an area of positive charge which is the electrical current produced by solar cells.
The process increases the amount of energy produced by the cells by 2.5 times but researchers believe there is yet more energy that could be produced by the protein and are working to try and improve it further.