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Laptops, Cell Phones Powered by Spinach?

As a "tech head," it's truly awesome to read about how the simplest things like plants can be used for such complex functions such as powering portable laptops and phones. But how?

Researchers at MIT incorporated a plant's ability to convert sunlight to energy into world's first solid-state photosynthetic solar cell, a solid-state electronic "spinach sandwich" device that may one day power laptops and cell phones. At the heart of the device is a protein complex dubbed Photosystem I (PSI). Derived from spinach chloroplasts, PSI is 10 to 20 nanometers wide. Around 100,000 of them would fit on the head of a pin.

A plant's ability to generate energy has been optimized by evolution, so a spinach plant is extremely efficient, churning out a lot of energy relative to its size and weight. But combining biological and non-biological materials in one device has stymied researchers in the past. Biological materials need water and salt to survive. Both are deadly for electronics.

How did the biological materials maintain their energy-generating properties? A membrane of peptide surfactants--similar to the main ingredient in soap--that helped the photosynthetic complexes self-assemble and stabilize while the circuit was fabricated.

Proteins usually need water to survive, but using the soap-like peptide, researchers were able to stabilize the protein complexes in a dry environment for at least three weeks.

Science Blog September 16, 2004

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