Why Solar Power Might Get a Lot More Green

It turns out that Popeye was right all along. /

Plants are exceptional friends. They live their whole lives giving, and ask for very little in return.

Plants provide us with nourishment in the form of fruits and vegetables; they offer us a means of creating shelter by giving us lumber; they keep us warm in the winter by fueling our fires. Even the spent air exhaled from our lungs is made useful and oxygen-rich again by our generous green comrades. Plants can meet all of our physical needs and wants, and all they desire in return is a little water, some sunlight, and a few nutrients.

With all that plants already provide us, you would think they would have nothing left to give. This doesn’t seem to be the case, however.

Spiderman taught us that with great power comes great responsibility. Popeye taught us that great power comes from spinach. Led by this insight, a group of researchers at the University of Georgia set out to see just how much power could be obtained from this leafy green. But they weren’t looking to make their biceps expand. They were more interested in how much electrical energy they could get directly from the plant’s photosynthetic cells. In essence, they used spinach like living solar panels.

A quick reminder about photosynthesis: it is the process of converting light energy into chemical energy and storing that chemical energy in the form of sugar. Or, in other words, of turning sunlight into food. It happens inside the cell on the membranes of pancake-like structures called thylakoids, which contain green pigments called chlorophylls.

A photon of light hits a chlorophyll molecule, exciting one of its electrons. This gives the electron so much energy that it cannot remain attached to the chlorophyll. So the electron leaves ...

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Issue 42 / February 18, 2016
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