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Spinach, Popeye’s favorite food, gives solar tech some muscle

Graphic of light bulbs, one with spinach
Silicon wafers doped in positively charged atoms and coated in a protein extracted from spinach give a boost to so-called biohybrid solar cell technology.Julie Turner / Vanderbilt

Should we them Popeye solar cells?

Silicon wafers coated in a protein extracted from spinach produce an electric current that is nearly 2-1/2 times higher than the previously best level reported for so-called biohybrid solar cells.

The protein, called photosystem 1 (PS1), converts sunlight into electrical energy. For the last few decades, researchers have learned how to extract and harness PS1 to create solar cells, but the amount of power these cells produce is a trickle compared to conventional photovoltaic cells.

The new approach pioneered by researchers at Vanderbilt University involves tailoring the electrical properties of silicon to fit those of the PS1 molecule.

To do it, the team doped a silicon wafer in positively charged atoms and then poured PS1 extracted from spinach on the wafer. In tests, they found it produces 850 microamps of current per square centimeter at 0.3 volts.

To put that in context, the researchers expect a two-foot panel with this combination could power several types of small electrical devices.

The findings are reported in the Sept. 4 issue of Advanced Materials.

“If we can continue our current trajectory of increasing voltage and current levels, we could reach the range of mature solar conversion technologies in three years,” David Cliffel, a chemist at the university, said in a news release

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.