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Popeye Was Right: Spinach Can Be Used to Fuel Cells, Find Scientists in New Study

Image for representation.

Image for representation.

Traditionally, platinum-based catalysts have been used. As much advertised by jewellery companies, platinum is a rare and very expensive metal.

Popeye the sailor man used a can of spinach to “power-up” and teach children the importance of this vital vegetable. But did you know this green leafy vegetable can be used to power fuel cells?

A new study reveals that it is possible to convert spinach into carbon nanosheets which can become a catalyst for oxygen-reduction reaction in fuel cells. Too much jargon? Let’s simplify.

Catalyst is any substance that increases the rate of reaction, without interfering or being consumed.

Oxygen-reduction reaction (ORR) is basically reactions involving energy conversation, covering everything from animal respiration to fuel cells, where chemical energy is converted into electrical energy using an oxidising agent.

Therefore, an ox-redox (oxidation-reduction) reaction is where the transfer of electrons in a chemical reaction can generate electricity. The ox-redox reaction can be controlled to manipulate energy output from fuel cells and metal-air batteries.

Traditionally, platinum-based catalysts have been used. As much advertised by jewellery companies, platinum is a rare and very expensive metal. Its replacement are some carbon-based materials, which are cheaper. However, these materials rarely give a performance at par with platinum.

Researchers of this study wanted to come up with something that was not only much cheaper than platinum but also equally efficient. They seemingly found their answer in a leaf of spinach. They found promising potential in spinach to serve as cheaper and more sustainable and efficient catalyst for fuel-cell systems.

The study was led by four scientists from the Department of Chemistry, Washington University and published in ACS Omega. “This work suggests that sustainable catalysts can be made for an oxygen reduction reaction from natural resources,” lead author Professor Shouzhong Zou was quoted by Earth.com.

He elaborated on the methods they used to produce the carbon-based catalysts extracted from spinach, which are also impressively active. Another added benefit, it is also renewable biomass. Zou believes this compound can actually outperform the more expensive commercial platinum catalysts in terms of stability and activity.

While cattail grass and rice have been considered by other studies, spinach makes a better candidate as it’s easier to access, as well as full of iron and nitrogen – both essential for an ORR catalyst.

The catalyst extracted, which is then formed into a carbon nanosheet, is thousands of times thinner than a human hair. The team believes that unlike platinum catalysts that weaken over time, these carbon-sheet catalysts will be much longer-lasting and efficient.


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