Sun-Soaking Device Turns Water Into Superheated Steam

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MIT engineers have built a device that soaks up enough heat from the sun to boil water and produce “superheated” steam hotter than 100 degrees Celsius, without any expensive optics.

On a sunny day, the structure can passively pump out steam hot enough to sterilize medical equipment, as well as to use in cooking and cleaning. The steam may also supply heat to industrial processes, or it could be collected and condensed to produce desalinated, distilled drinking water.

The researchers previously developed a sponge-like structure that floated in a container of water and turned the water it absorbed into steam. But a big concern is that contaminants in the water caused the structure to degrade over time. The new device is designed to be suspended over the water, to avoid any possible contamination.

The suspended device is about the size and thickness of a small digital tablet or e-reader, and is structured like a sandwich: The top layer is made from a material that efficiently absorbs the sun’s heat, while the bottom layer efficiently emits that heat to the water below. Once the water reaches the boiling point (100 C), it releases steam that rises back up into the device, where it is funneled through the middle layer — a foam-like material that further heats the steam above the boiling point, before it’s pumped out through a single tube.

“It’s a completely passive system — you just leave it outside to absorb sunlight,” says Thomas Cooper, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at York University, who led the work as a postdoc at MIT. “You could scale this up to something that could be used in remote climates to generate enough drinking water for a family, or sterilize equipment for one operating room.”

The team’s results are detailed in a paper published today in Nature Communications . The study includes researchers from the lab of Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering at MIT.

The team decided to design a device that instead is suspended above water. The device is structured to absorb short-wavelength solar energy, which in turn heats up the device, causing it to reradiate this heat, in the form of longer-wavelength infrared radiation, to the water below. Interestingly, the researchers note that infrared wavelengths are more readily absorbed by water, versus solar wavelengths, which would simply pass right through.