Spinach Powers Up Fuel Cells with More Efficiency

If it can give Popeye a power boost, maybe it's not surprising that it could also help power a car.
Chris Young

Spinach, the green vegetable we were all tricked into eating by cartoon character Popeye as kids, doesn't just provide huge amounts of energy and nutrients to humans.

The leafy vegetable has the potential to help power fuel cells, according to a new study by researchers in AU's Department of Chemistry.

A group of AU researchers recently demonstrated the vegetable's potential by converting it into carbon nanosheets that act as a catalyst for an oxygen reduction in fuel cells and metal-air batteries.


Improving fuel cell performance with spinach

Shouzhong Zou and his team at the Department of Chemistry, American University (AU) set out to try spinach as a means for improving the performance of fuel cells, and even they were surprised by the outcome.

In proof-of-concept experiments, they used locally-bought spinach to make their carbon catalyst for fuel cells and metal-air batteries that would otherwise typically use platinum-based catalysts.

"This work suggests that sustainable catalysts can be made for an oxygen reduction reaction from natural resources," Prof. Shouzhong Zou, chemistry professor at AU and the paper's lead author explained in a press release.

"The method we tested can produce highly active, carbon-based catalysts from spinach, which is a renewable biomass. In fact, we believe it outperforms commercial platinum catalysts in both activity and stability. The catalysts are potentially applicable in hydrogen fuel cells and metal-air batteries," Prof. Shouzhong Zou continued.

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Popeye would be proud

The AU researchers' spinach-based catalyst provides an inexpensive and less toxic alternative to traditional platinum-based catalysts. Spinach is a great candidate as a plant-derived catalyst due to the fact that it survives in low temperatures, 

Spinach is a good candidate for this work because it survives in low temperatures, is easy to grow, and is rich in iron and nitrogen, essential components for this type of catalyst.

In order to create their spinach nanosheets, the researchers put washed, juiced, and freeze-dried the spinach before manually grinding it into a fine powder. They then added a little extra nitrogen to the powdered spinach to improve the performance.

Impressively, the team said their lab simulation measurements showed that their spinach catalysts performed better than equivalent platinum-based catalysts. Next, the researchers aim to test their prototype devices, such as hydrogen fuel cells.

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