Sponge-like structure generates steam using lowest concentration of solar energy yet


July 22, 2014

A composite of graphite flakes and carbon foam is claimed to convert 85 percent of solar energy into steam

A composite of graphite flakes and carbon foam is claimed to convert 85 percent of solar energy into steam

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Researchers working at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering claim to have produced a sponge-like substance that helps convert water to steam using sunlight one-hundredth as bright as that required by conventional steam-producing solar generators. A composite of graphite flakes layered on a bed of carbon foam, the new material is reported to convert as much as 85 percent of received solar energy into steam.

In practice, the scientists say that the graphite flakes and carbon foam composite that they've created forms a porous insulating material structure that floats on water. After a number of experiments, the scientists found that the best method to maximize heat retention properties in the top layer was to exfoliate (expand a material by heating so that it increases in volume and lowers in density) graphite by cooking it in a microwave, causing it to bubble and swell. The outcome is an exceedingly permeable top layer able to maximize absorption and retention of solar energy.

The bottom layer is fashioned from carbon foam containing hundreds of tiny pockets of air that keeps the material floating on the surface of the water, while also providing insulation that prevents heat escaping to the water underneath it. Most importantly for the generation of steam, the foam is also riddled with tiny pores that allow water – through capillary action from applied heat – to make its way up through the material.

As such, when sunlight illuminates and heats the material it generates a pressure differential between the foam and the air that draws water up through the carbon and into the graphite layer. As the water soaks into the graphite, the heat focused on the material then converts the water into steam. As a result, the more intense the light striking the graphite surface, the more water is drawn up through the material, and the more steam generated.

"Steam is important for desalination, hygiene systems, and sterilization," says Hadi Ghasemi, a postdoctoral MIT student who ran the material development. "Especially in remote areas where the sun is the only source of energy, if you can generate steam with solar energy, it would be very useful."

The team also claims that the sponge-like material is able to be made from comparatively cheap materials and may be suitable for a new range of inexpensive, compact, steam-powered applications, particularly as this method offers a significant improvement over conventional solar-powered steam generation methods.

Though not in the same league as supercritical solar steam generators, the upshot of the demonstrated material and experiment shows that there is much less heat loss than that found in ordinary systems and that as steam may be generated at much lower temperatures, future solar-to-steam systems may be much cheaper and less complex to build, run, and maintain.

The research was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: MIT

About the Author
Colin Jeffrey Colin discovered technology at an early age, pulling apart clocks, radios, and the family TV. Despite his father's remonstrations that he never put anything back together, Colin went on to become an electronics engineer. Later he decided to get a degree in anthropology, and used that to do all manner of interesting things masquerading as work. Even later he took up sculpting, moved to the coast, and never learned to surf. All articles by Colin Jeffrey

For the purpose of retained energy (say if you wanted to use that steam for heating) there is only so far you can go with the physics of the system but as a means of separation or for concentrating this is a very impressive achievement. Lets hope it is one of those developments that makes it out of the lab.


How long does it take for the salt and other impurities to clog the sponge when vaporizing sea water?


Is it easier to extract hydrogen from steam?


Are nanoparticles used in concentrated pv electricity generation?

Paul Robertson

Nothing is said about the temperature of this alleged steam. Evaporation is one thing -- that can happen at very low temperature -- but to make steam, it must be at least 100°C (at Std pressure). What we have here is useful technology with poor terminology.


It uses cheap, non-toxic materials, okay. How much does it cost to process it per kg or m^3?

Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret


If you read the article it says that the steam is created using light concentrated ten times higher than ordinary sunlight which is concentrated on, if the picture is anything to go by, a very small area...and the water is boiling!

So, I guess, it's "real" steam and not simply evaporation (which, incidentally, are two very different things)


This is a variation of using dyes for increasing evaporation from sea water - a study that was done in 1979.

In this case the material will be clogged up with salts.



This is a longshot here, but could floating balls or pads be made of this stuff to place in the glacial bays at the poles. If more of the sunlight is used to evaporate the sea water, less will be left to warm the bay water, countering the loss of ice on the water. It would also put more moisture in the air, creating more (light reflecting) snow.


How do you collect the steam without blocking the sunlight from hitting the surface????


bullrun, you're assuming that all of the sunlight is entering from one direction only. Think prisms and mirrors.

Noel K Frothingham

Good technology - poor terminology. That said, there are a lot of critical information amiss in the coverage of this technology. If the picture is anything to go by, then I would think the steam generated is actual as opposed to evaporation. My understanding is that water converts to steam at at 100 degrees Celsius so at what lower temperature are we talking about here???? ....There are certainly areas where this tech can be used . My interests are in Rain Harvesting and Grey water Systems and such a concept has merit therein. The biggest challenge I see in the use thereof is the clogging of the material - this would invariably occur. The rate at which the material clogs will be dependent on the solubles within the water - this needs to be addressed for real functionality in the the field of Grey Water systems.


Finally. The return of the steam powered car?


Author perhaps did not understand the process or inadvertantly did not include a significant detail. While solar boiler would probably clog up very quickly if used on seawater or other water with dissolved or suspended solids I doubt this is what the inventor was looking at.

My supposition is that this solar boiler would be filled with as pure a water as one could produce. The boiler would make steam that would be piped to another system such as a desalination plant, power generator or other device. The condensate from this other device would thenbe returned to this solar boiler much like any other steam generator.

Thus this clean water/steam loop would be endlessly recycled.

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