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by Preston Sims, student writer

Studies show that spinach may be used for more than spoiling mealtime for children.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have discovered a way to use spinach’s photosynthetic ability to convert sunlight energy into a form that may be able to power electronics.

The device is called the “spinach sandwich”. This mechanism will work like a battery and is fueled by the protein complex Photosystem I (PSI) which is derived from the chloroplast in ground-up spinach leaves. PSI is only 10 to 20 nanometers wide. It would take over 100,000 of these microscopic protein complexes to cover the head of a needle.

Marc A. Baldo, assistant professor of electronic engineering and computer science at MIT, told MIT Tech Talk, “They are the smallest electronic circuits I know of.”

The “spinach sandwich” is made up of several different layers to increase its efficiency. The bottom layer is a transparent glass coat with a conductive material. On top of this is a thin layer of gold to help the chemical reaction that assembles PSI. Next, there is a soft organic semiconductor that prevents electrical shorts and protects the protein complexes. The top of the sandwich is a thin layer of metal.

Due to the fact that electronics must be kept dry and the spinach proteins need water, researchers had to come up with a compromise. This problem was resolved by combining the electronic and organic materials with detergent peptides, which store moisture for the protein.

Shuguang Zhang, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Biomedical Engineering at MIT told MIT Tech Talk, “Detergent peptide turned out to be a wonderful material to keep proteins intact on the surface with electronics. The detergent materials may contain some trapped water, which acts like the oils that help plant seeds survive in droughts.”

Researchers are enthusiastic to harvest this technology because spinach is able to produce a massive amount of energy relative to its size and weight.

The latest test of this device showed promising results. A laser light was shone on the device to create optical excitation. Twelve percent of the laser’s light was converted directly to an electrical charge.

Researchers hope to eventually create a 20 percent or more conversion rate by using multiple layers of PSI or 3-D surfaces. A 20 percent rate would create an energy source powerful enough for many portable electronics such as cell phones or laptops.

Although this technology may not be available anytime soon, it is still a promising possibility for the future.

Some day we could be walking down the street listening to spinach-powered iPODs.


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