Cells from spinach leaves' membrane can produce electricity and hydrogen fuel when used with sunlight and water, researchers found.
In an experiment, researchers developed a bio-photo-electro-chemical (BPEC) cell that was able to produce electric power, hydrogen and oxygen, where water was the only raw material.
Emulating the natural process of photosynthesis, the process involves using an iron-based compound as a medium for transferring electrons from the biological membranes to the electrical circuit.
The hydrogen gas is formed when the electrical current is exposed to a small photovoltaic cell, which converts solar energy into chemical energy.
There is also the flexibility to convert the gas into heat and electricity as required. It can be done by burning hydrogen the same way hydrocarbon fuels are burnt.
The project is a landmark as it holds greater promise for combining natural photosynthetic membranes and man-made photovoltaic cells in converting solar power into hydrogen fuel.
The findings were published in the August edition of Nature Communications.
Combination Of Three Disciplines
The study was conducted by doctoral students of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, namely Roy Pinhassi, Dan Kallmann and Gadiel Saper, who worked under the guidance of senior professors.
The research is expected to serve as a trailblazer for new technologies that seek to create fuels from renewable sources like water and solar energy. It follows the growing interest in exploring artificial photosynthesis and fuels for storing solar power.
In terms of significance, the study heralds the promise for commercial utilization and mass production of natural photosynthetic membranes that can operate in sync with man-made photovoltaic cells for converting solar energy into hydrogen fuel.
Explaining the significance of the study, material science and engineering professor Avner Rothschild said the study's uniqueness comes from the combination of three disciplines: biology, chemistry and materials engineering.
"The combination of natural (leaves) and artificial (photovoltaic cell and electronic components), and the need to make these components communicate with each other are complex engineering challenges that required us to join forces," he said.
What makes the new method remarkable is the conversion of solar energy into hydrogen gas in a clean process. That opens up the opportunity for elevating it as an eco-friendly, sustainable substitute for hydrocarbon fuel without the risk of releasing harmful carbon dioxide into the environment.
The study was held under the auspices of Nancy and Stephen Grand Technion Energy Program (GTEP) and the tests were carried out at the Technion's Hydrogen Lab.
Photo: Ruth Hartnup | Flickr