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Researchers turned grocery store spinach into a functioning fuel cell

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Everyone knows that Popeye got his strength by downing a can of spinach. Maybe that strength didn’t come from the nutrients in the leafy greens after all. A team of researchers recently created a functional fuel cell using spinach.

Although it sounds crazy, the proof of concept experiment shows that spinach could theoretically work as a clean fuel source. The team’s research was published in the journal ACS Omega.

Despite the fact that a spinach-powered battery is a neat idea, it probably isn’t the long-term solution the world needs to ditch fossil fuels and other dirty power options.

Super Food

In terms of its nutritional value, spinach is one of the best food choices in the world. It is packed with tons of nutrients as well as minerals like iron. Given that spinach is cheap, easy to grow, and easily renewable, it would technically make an ideal fuel source.

To turn spinach into a working fuel cell, researchers took a page out of every cookbook on the shelves. They simply added a pinch of salt. Doing so transformed the spinach into a catalyst to power the fuel cell.

The team also blended the spinach in a juicer, freeze-dried it, and heat-treated it into layers of nanosheets. Shouzhong Zou, the lead author of the study, says, “Even though we call them nanosheets, when they are stacked together, it’s not like a stack of paper that is very solid. We need to make it porous enough that all the active sites can be used.”

That’s where the salt comes in. Ultimately, the nanosheets were more efficient than platinum fuel cells. Considering that carbon-based catalysts typically fail to usurp platinum in the fuel cell world, that’s a noteworthy achievement.

Zou says, “This work suggests that sustainable catalysts can be made of ran oxygen reduction reaction from natural resources. The method we tested can produce highly active, carbon-based catalysts from spinach, which is a renewable biomass. In fact, we believe it outperforms commercial platinum catalysts in both activity and stability.”

Could it Work?

An early-stage experiment is far different from using spinach to power things in the real world. Yet, researchers believe that it could be a viable solution sometime in the future.

There is still plenty of work to be done in the meantime. For instance, the system needs to be scaled so that it can produce more power. It also needs to be integrated with other technologies before it can be turned into a useful battery.

Zou and his team are currently working to collaborate with other labs to conduct experiments that examine this idea. He believes that spinach could serve as a potential catalyst for things like metal-air batteries that can be used to power electric cars.

In the years ahead, there will be many new proposals on how to generate clean power. If the world is going to move on from emission-releasing fossil fuels, no idea should be cast aside—not even spinach-powered cars.

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