May 20th, 2013 by

Credit: Jimmy Cardosi

Credit: Jimmy Cardosi

Now, here’s a scientific study Popeye would really go for: Researchers at the University of Georgia have captured energy from spinach, according to a new study published in Energy & Environmental Science.

The team, led by Assistant Professor Ramaraja Ramasamy, has developed a method of syphoning off the electrons that plants create during photosynthesis, and electrons translate into energy. Using spinach in their experiments, they manipulated proteins in the plant’s thylakoids — the structures that capture and store energy from sunlight — to redirect to carbon nanotubes that act as conductors, rather than being converted into sugar by the plant.

Photosynthesis is a natural process that’s just screaming to be mimicked. Many plants have a quantum efficiency of nearly 100 percent — meaning nearly every photon from the sun that they take in is converted into an electron. In contrast, the quantum efficiency of a solar panel is between 12 and 17 percent. You simply can’t process energy from the sun any better than plants can. So, just as forests may hold the key to countless undiscovered medical cures, they also have a lot to teach us about sustainable energy.

This is not the first time scientists have used plants to create energy, but the University of Georgia research marks a big step forward in the efficiency of such technologies, having produced electrical current levels two orders of magnitude larger than similar systems have. If you’re like me, there may be one thing nagging as you read about this research: Don’t the plants need those electrons to produce sugars? It’s true that the system is currently not stable for very long, as it effectively robs the plant of its energy. However, plants can replace lost thylakoids, and with more work, it may be possible to make this technology sustainable in a way that could rival solar panel technology. In the foreseeable future, though, the technology could be used as a power source in remote areas. Someday, could we be monitoring forests using their own power?

“It is green energy, 100 percent clean; it has the potential to operate at really high efficiency, if we can continue to improve on this,” Ramasamy tells NBC News. “Besides, I think it is a really cool concept.”