Spinach has widely been seen as a superfood for a very long time, to the point that it became a staple food of the famous cartoon character Popeye. A new study suggests, however, it could become part of a super-fuel as well.
A team at American University in Washington DC found that spinach is an effective catalyst for making batteries function better. The paper suggests that it may be better for improving battery efficiency than platinum.
Given that so many industries are moving away from fuels towards hydrogen fuel cells and air batteries, we could see spinach in our cars in the not too distant future, and superfood suppliers may become super-fuel suppliers too.
Batteries in general produce electricity through the use of chemical reactions. The general way this works is what is known as a fuel cell, which uses chemical energy (such as the ever-plentiful hydrogen) and oxygen to generate electricity. Metal-air batteries work similarly, except replace the chemical with metal oxides.
One problem with these batteries is they rely on two specific reactions, and the oxygen reduction reaction takes longer than the hydrogen (or metal) oxidation reaction to produce. This limits how powerful the battery can be.
With the use of a catalyst, the oxygen reduction reaction is kickstarted and with both reactions the fuel cell produces energy. Typically the only catalysts that have worked effectively have been made of platinum, which is a notoriously expensive chemical and producing it as a catalyst can be dangerous.
Certain carbon-based materials have worked, but they are not necessarily as good at catalysing as platinum.
Whilst other plants have been tried, such as rice and cattail grass, the things that make spinach so good for us also make it very good for making catalysts. Spinach is hardy and survives in the cool temperatures needed in a fuel cell, it is an easy to grow plant and, most importantly, is rich in iron and nitrogen.
These are not only good for the body but also good for creating catalysts. What Professor Shouzhong Zou and his team did to the spinach was first to wash, juice, freeze-dry the spinach and finally grind it into a fine powder. After this, extra nitrogen was added and the powered was converted into nanometre thick sheets of carbon.
The results in the lab showed it worked better than platinum catalysts, so the next step is to create prototype fuel cells to see how they work in practice.
Fuel For The Body
Spinach is exceptionally good for us, fitting nearly every major requirement for a superfood. They are rich in nitrogen and iron as seen in the battery experiments, but they also contain vitamins K, A and C, as well as magnesium, potassium and calcium, along with several B vitamins.
Spinach is ideal as an anti-inflammatory food, rich in anti-oxidants (ironic given their used to help oxygen reactions), which help encourage brain health.