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Technologies for solar steam generation with high performance can help solving critical societal issues such as water desalination or sterilization, especially in developing countries. Very recently, we have witnessed a rapidly growing interest in the scientific community proposing sunlight absorbers for direct conversion of liquid water into steam. While those solutions can possibly be of interest from the perspective of the involved novel materials, in this study we intend to demonstrate that efficient steam generation by solar source is mainly due to a combination of efficient solar absorption, capillary water feeding and narrow gap evaporation process, which can also be achieved through common materials. To this end, we report both numerical and experimental evidence that advanced nano-structured materials are not strictly necessary for performing sunlight driven water-to-vapor conversion at high efficiency (i.e. ≥85%) and relatively low optical concentration (≈10 suns). Coherently with the principles of frugal innovation, those results unveil that solar steam generation for desalination or sterilization purposes may be efficiently obtained by a clever selection and assembly of widespread and inexpensive materials
Developing sustainable technologies is fundamental for mitigating the anthropogenic impact on environment1: global warming and clean water scarcity are progressively impacting our economies and societies2,3,4. Therefore, international collaborative efforts have taken place to limit global temperature rise (up to 2 °C respect to pre-industrial levels5) and address clean water scarcity in the most water-stressed areas, where nearly two-thirds of global population will live by the year 20256
Several filtration or distillation processes have been developed for the generation of fresh water from either brackish or sea water. Most of these processes are highly energy intensive and powered by fossil fuels7, whereas more sustainable alternatives have been recently investigated to couple clean water generation with renewable energy8
Among these methods, solar distillation appears as one of the most economical and practical solutions for small scale desalination, particularly in remote and off-grid areas8,9,10,11. Steam generation by solar energy (solar steam) has been also recently investigated in a broad variety of other applications, for instance enhanced oil recovery12,13, power generation14, sterilization15, separation processes16 or evaporation-driven engines17. The present challenge in solar steam generation is to develop robust and cost-effective technologies with enhanced solar-to-vapor conversion efficiencies18,19
Currently, large plants for steam generation from solar thermal energy rely on a cavity or surface absorbing solar radiation20,21, being the absorbed heat then used to evaporate water directly or by means of a carrier fluid. These solutions suffer from large surface heat and optical losses18; therefore, nanofluid volumetric receivers have been recently studied for increasing the solar-to-thermal energy conversion22,23,24,25. In case of installations with limited sizes, such as those for remote villages and small islands, solar steam can be also generated by inexpensive and easy to operate solar still technologies, where water is directly evaporated by solar radiation with generally low steam productivity8,26
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