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Biofuels Oak Ridge researchers develop system for making hydrogen fuel from sunlight and spinach

Published on February 6th, 2011 | by Tina Casey


Popeye Would Love this Sustainable Hydrogen Fuel Made from Sunlight and Spinach

February 6th, 2011 by  

Oak Ridge researchers develop system for making hydrogen fuel from sunlight and spinachBreakthroughs in sustainable hydrogen fuel technology are coming fast and furious, and the latest one seems like something out of an episode of Popeye. Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee have confirmed a system for converting visible light into hydrogen fuel based on an ordinary, off-the-shelf ingredient from the produce section of a local market: spinach.

Spinach and Sustainable Energy

Popeye aside, alternative energy researchers have long cast an envious eye on the ability of plants to convert sunlight into energy almost instantaneously. As reported by writer Sopan Take a few years ago, researchers at Oak Ridge have been developing ways to harness the photosynthetic capabilities of spinach for a long time. In the 1980’s, they patented a way to turn spinach membranes into miniature electrical switches. About 10 years ago, they worked with the University of Southern California on ways to use spinach proteins to treat certain forms of blindness. More recently they have been looking into ways of using a spinach protein to fabricate solar cells as a cheaper, renewable and more readily available alternative to silicon.

Spinach and Hydrogen Fuel

Oak Ridge writer Bill Cabage describes the latest breakthrough as a biohybrid photoconversion system. The researchers were able to confirm that a particular light-harvesting protein derived from plain old supermarket spinach can be induced to assemble itself into a membrane, by putting it into a liquid solution containing synthetic polymers. The protein, called LHC-II (LHC stands for Light Harvesting Complex) interacts with the polymers to form a membrane, which in turn produces hydrogen. In other words the membrane acts as a kind of photovoltaic cell, but instead of generating electricity it generates hydrogen.

Next Steps for Hydrogen Fuel from Spinach

Now that the basic process has been confirmed, the next steps will bring the researchers closer to developing a working model. Another potential hurdle to overcome is reducing the cost of the catalyst. Oak Ridge researchers have been using platinum, which is very expensive and is vulnerable to the vagaries of global markets. Conventional hydrogen fuel cell technology relies on platinum, but various less costly alternatives are on the horizon, so it is possible that the Oak Ridge research may benefit from these developments.

A Hydrogen Fuel Converter for Every Home

We’re probably years away from it, but this latest development brings us closer to the possibility of a compact, affordable hydrogen fuel generator that practically anyone could learn how to operate at home. After all, now-ubiquitous devices like the iPad aren’t too many years away from those huge rooms full of outrageously expensive equipment that used to be needed to run a simple computer operation. Saying good-bye to “yesterday’s energy” will be a long process but cleaner, healthier, alternatives are within sight, and it’s time to ask ourselves who really benefits from clinging to the past.

Image: Spinach leaf by stewart on flickr.com. 


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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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