“Scientists figure out a way to get energy out of new non-coal thing” is getting to be a pretty common story, and so far none of it has revolutionized our power grid. But this one serves a dual purpose: It can make solar panels cheaper and more efficient, plus vegetable-pushing parents can point to it and say “don’t you want to grow big and strong, just like the solar cell that powers your GameCube?” Because the secret ingredient in this new tech is spinach.
The new solar cells, developed by researchers at Vanderbilt University, collect the sun’s energy using a combination of silicon and PS1, the protein that helps spinach photosynthesize. “Biohybrid” (i.e., part plant) cells like this one use cheap and widely available materials, plus they make use of plants’ natural talent for converting light into energy — PS1′s efficiency is nearly 100 percent.
Typically, biohybrid cells don’t perform as well as commercial photovoltaic cells, which are made of more expensive and rarer stuff. But the spinach cell is closing the gap — it performs nearly two and a half times better than the previous most efficient biohybrid cell. In comparison, all previous efforts are like Popeye eating Brussels sprouts.
The researchers have a ways to go to make PS1-based cells feasible. But in the future, your home power sources and your salad could have more in common than you ever imagined.