A new way to turn saltwater fresh can kill germs and avoid gunk buildup

The key to the improvement is keeping device components high and dry

desalination device

FULL STEAM AHEAD A new device that uses sunlight to generate clean water vapor from salty or dirty water could help produce drinking water in remote, off-the-grid areas. 

Thomas A. Cooper

A new design for sun-powered desalination technology may lead to longer-lasting devices that produce cleaner water.

The trick boils down to preventing a device’s components from touching the saltwater. Instead, a lid of light-absorbing material rests above a partially filled basin of water, absorbing sunlight and radiating that energy to the liquid below. That evaporates the water to create pure vapor, which can be condensed into freshwater to help meet the demands of a world where billions of people lack safe drinking water (SN: 8/18/18, p. 14).

This setup marks an improvement over other sun-powered desalination devices, where sunshine-absorbing materials float atop the saltwater  (SN: 8/20/16, p. 22). In those devices, salt and other contaminants left behind during evaporation can degrade the material’s ability to soak up sunlight. Having water in contact with the material also prevents the material from getting hotter than about 100° Celsius or producing steam above that temperature. That limits the technology’s ability to purify the final product; killing pathogenic microbes often requires temperatures of at least 121° C.

In the new device, described online December 11 in Nature Communications, the separation between the light-absorbing lid and the water’s surface helps keep the lid clean and allows it to generate vapor tens of degrees hotter than the water’s boiling point.

The lid comprises three main components: a top layer made of a metal-ceramic composite that absorbs sunshine, a sheet of carbon foam and a bottom layer of aluminum. Heat spreads from the sunlight-absorbing layer to the aluminum, from which thermal energy radiates to the water below. When the water temperature hits about 100° C, vapor is produced. The steam rises up through holes in the aluminum and flows through the lid’s middle carbon layer, heating further along the way, until it is released in a single stream out the side of the lid. There, it can be captured and condensed.

Producing superheated steam in this way, without any gunk buildup, is “a very innovative idea,” says Jia Zhu, a materials scientist at Nanjing University in China not involved in the work.

Under a lamp that mimics natural sunlight in the lab, the device evaporated 100 grams of saltwater without any salt collecting on the underside of the lid. Salt crystals formed at the bottom of the basin washed away easily. In experiments in October on a rooftop in Cambridge, Mass., researchers used a curved mirror to focus incoming sunlight onto the light-absorbing layer of the device to produce steam hotter than 146° C.

“When you can access these temperatures, you can use the steam for things like sterilization, for cooking, for cleaning, for industrial processes,” says coauthor Thomas Cooper, a mechanical engineer at York University in Toronto. A device measuring 1 square meter could generate 2.5 liters of freshwater per day in sunny regions such as the southeastern United States, and at least half that in shadier regions such as New England, Cooper estimates.

This sun-powered technology could also provide an ecofriendly alternative to reverse osmosis, a water purification process that involves pushing seawater through salt-filtering membranes (SN: 9/15/18, p. 10). Reverse osmosis, which runs on electricity, “is an energy-hungry technology,” says Qiaoqiang Gan, an engineer at the University at Buffalo in New York not involved in the work. “For resource-limited areas, remote areas or people who live on small islands, this [new device] might be a very good option for them to address their freshwater needs.” But researchers still need to investigate how affordable a commercial version of this device would be, Gan says. 

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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