It seems that spinach packs more of a punch than even Popeye imagined. What green plants have been doing for millions of years — photosynthesis — using sunlight to create glucose from carbon dioxide and water, essentially making their own energy, has spurred the imaginations of scientists for years.

Recently, Kane Jennings, a professor of chemical and bio­molecular engineering at Vanderbilt, his colleague David Cliffel, and a group of researchers have found a way to produce electrical current by combining spinach’s photosynthetic protein, photosystem 1 (PS1), which converts light into electrochemical energy, with silicon.

The team placed PS1 on a silicon electrode to power a solar cell. Jennings told National Public Radio reporter Bruce Gellerman that it generates 2,500 times more power than when the protein is put on a metal electrode and six times more power than the silicon electrode alone. “What we’re looking at here is more of a wet-based solar cell. More like kind of a solar battery,” Jennings said.

Although the cells are not yet ready for a photovoltaic rooftop array, Jennings predicts that can happen in the next three years. But don’t worry about your spinach salad — they’re checking out the PS1 protein in the invasive species kudzu next.

The research was reported in the Sept. 4 issue of the Journal of Advanced Materials. —Stacey Freed, senior editor, REMODELING.

Related articles:

Watershed Moment: Winners of the 2011 solar decathlon

Stepping up to Solar: Specifying and installing solar panels

Off the Rack: Apollo Solar Roofing System