Rice University scientists have unveiled a revolutionary new technology that uses nanoparticles to convert solar energy directly into steam. The new “solar steam” method from Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) is so effective it can even produce steam from icy cold water.
Details of the solar steam method were published online November 19 in ACS Nano. The technology has an overall energy efficiency of 24 percent. Photovoltaic solar panels, by comparison, typically have an overall energy efficiency around 15 percent. However, the inventors of solar steam said they expect the first uses of the new technology will not be for electricity generation but rather for sanitation and water purification in developing countries.
“This is about a lot more than electricity,” said LANP Director Naomi Halas, the lead scientist on the project. “With this technology, we are beginning to think about solar thermal power in a completely different way.”
The efficiency of solar steam is due to the light-capturing nanoparticles that convert sunlight into heat. When submerged in water and exposed to sunlight, the particles heat up so quickly they instantly vaporize water and create steam. Halas said the solar steam’s overall energy efficiency can probably be increased as the technology is refined.
“We’re going from heating water on the macro scale to heating it at the nanoscale,” Halas said. “Our particles are very small — even smaller than a wavelength of light — which means they have an extremely small surface area to dissipate heat. This intense heating allows us to generate steam locally, right at the surface of the particle, and the idea of generating steam locally is really counterintuitive.”
To show just how counterintuitive, Rice graduate student Oara Neumann videotaped a solar steam demonstration in which a test tube of water containing light-activated nanoparticles was submerged into a bath of ice water. Using a lens to concentrate sunlight onto the near-freezing mixture in the tube, Neumann showed she could create steam from nearly frozen water.
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