Scientists with the US university Rice University have unveiled a revolutionary new technology that uses nanoparticles to convert solar energy directly into steam, the university said Monday.
The new technology has an overall energy efficiency of 24 percent, and photovoltaic solar panels, by comparison, typically only have an overall energy efficiency around 15 percent, said the Houston-based university.
The new "solar steam" method from Rice's Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) is so effective it can even produce steam from icy cold water, inventors said.
The inventors of the 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, whose details were published on-line Monday in the monthly scientific journal ACS Nano.
"With this technology, we are beginning to think about solar thermal power in a completely different way," said Halas.
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 lens to concentrate sunlight onto the near-freezing mixture in the tube, Neumann showed she could create steam from nearly frozen water.
Steam is one of the world's most-used industrial fluids. About 90 percent of electricity is produced from steam, and steam is also used to sterilize medical waste and surgical instruments, to prepare food and to purify water.
Most industrial steam is produced in large boilers, and Halas said solar steam's efficiency could allow steam to become economical on a much smaller scale.
People in developing countries will be among the first to see the benefits of solar steam, inventors said.
"Solar steam is remarkable because of its efficiency," said Neumann, the lead co-author on the paper. "It does not require acres of mirrors or solar panels. In fact, the footprint can be very small. For example, the light window in our demonstration autoclave was just a few square centimeters."
Another potential use could be in powering hybrid air- conditioning and heating systems that run off of sunlight during the day and electricity at night. Halas, Neumann and colleagues have also conducted distillation experiments and found that solar steam is about two-and-a-half times more efficient than existing distillation columns.