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Spinach: Good for Popeye and the Planet

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Renewable fuel cells from salted spinach blended

Could the future of renewable energy lie with a common household thing? Spinach might give you powers like Popeye and work as a cure for cancer, but it could soon be the carrier for moving energy around the world. Oil and gas, which make up most of our energy supply, can easily be shipped and stored. But in the case of renewable energy, which travels through the power grid as electricity, it’s still questionable? The renewable exercise prevents it from becoming a bigger player on the world market. That’s why as a major step for green tech, scientists have taken regular spinach and turned it into the catalyst for a renewable and efficient fuel cell.

Scientists in American University’s Department of chemistry have been working with spinach in various capacities, trying to harness its full power. The proof-of-concept renewable fuel cell is the latest achievement where they successfully converted leafy, edible spinach into carbon nanosheets, which acts as a catalyst for an oxygen reduction reaction in fuel cells and metal-air batteries.

Future of renewable fuel cells

An oxygen reduction reaction is one of two reactions in fuel cells and metal-air batteries. This slower reaction usually limits the energy output from the devices. Certain carbon materials can catalyze the reaction but those catalysts don’t always perform as good as traditional platinum-based catalysts. The AU researchers were looking for an inexpensive and less toxic preparation method for an efficient catalyst by using readily available natural resources. They wanted to tackle this challenge by using spinach.

Usually, the carbon-based catalyst for fuel cells performs better than platinum. But when lead scientist Shouzhong Zou along with his team used salted spinach blended and dried as nanosheets, they were more efficient than even platinum. They treated lightly-salted spinach blend with heat into layers of the nanosheets to get renewable fuel cells.

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

In the near future, experts hope that when green tech keeps expanding, spinach cells will be a more sustainable alternative.

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