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Researchers at the University of Tennessee recently helped discover a way to generate electricity from spinach leaves.

UT along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory sought to develop technology that could channel the energy produced by photosynthesis. Engineers, biologists, and experts in the field of nanotechnology collaborated on the project.

Photosynthesis is the means by which plants acquire nourishment from sunlight. With the newly developed technology, the power generated by this process may one day use light to charge laptop computers, cellular phones, and other electronic equipment.

Dr. Barry Bruce, UT associate professor in the biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology department, worked with MIT professors on a protein complex called Photosystem I.

“Photosystem I is valuable because of its ability to absorb light and produce a high energy electron,” Bruce said.

“We isolated a protein found in spinach membranes and preserved it. Then we placed it between layers of glass, conductive material and gold, and a protective layer of organic material,” Bruce said. “We discovered that shining laser light on the protein complex produced a current.”

One of these miniscule currents does not generate enough energy to power the battery of a cell phone or laptop, but billions of them combined could create a lightweight, environmentally friendly device capable of energizing electronics or powering back-up batteries, Bruce said.

“I’ve worked on this complex for 20 years — since I was in graduate school at Berkeley,” Bruce said. “The opportunity to take this knowledge and move it from basic science to an applied science has been really exciting.”