Outdoor solar water purification using HNGs in natural sunlight. (Credit: Zhao, et al.)
Saline water—classified as having more than 1,000 ppm of dissolved salts—can be made into freshwater through desalination. The process is typically fueled by the sun, or by some other power source heating the water; after the heat energy turns the saline water into steam, one captures the steam, and then distills it back into water as it cools and condenses. On a small scale, such as that of an individual-sized still, it’s a simple, rain-inspired process, albeit a slow one.
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Distillation not only removes salt, but also other contaminants, so it’s been a traditional standby treatment process. The challenge to improve upon it is growing more urgent as the Earth’s population booms and freshwater resources dwindle thanks to pollution and drought. Salinity is a problem in at least 30 percent of the world’s irrigated regions, and remediation is very expensive, creating additional need for low-cost desalination.
Obviously, there are a number of weaknesses in the existing “state of the art” for desalination. The team took a systematic approach to dealing with each weakness in turn.
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Therefore, to provide enough energy for the water evaporation step of the process, most industrial solar water purification systems utilize costly and complex optical concentrators (OCs). These focus sunlight to heat the water. However, such optical concentration leads to higher construction and maintenance costs.
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Schematic of highly efficient solar vapour generation based on tailored water transport in HNGs. (Credit: Zhao, et al.)
Hydrogels are known for their high water absorbency, because they both attract water and then trap it. This is an important part of the team’s new technology.
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What sets this particular hydrogel apart, however, is its solar abilities.
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This overall design and set of qualities means more evaporation with a much lower energy price tag.
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In fact, according to Yu, the solar desalination process achieved in tests significantly reduced the salinity of seawater—by about 3 to 4 orders of magnitude.
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Characterization of the HNGs. (Credit: Zhao, et al.)
This unique hydrogel is able to vaporize more water using less energy because its polymer network can break even the strong interactions among water molecules in liquid water. Another important innovation in this work is the ability to avoid reinventing the wheel despite this technological advance.
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In terms of what’s coming next for the team, scalability tests are in the near future.
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Yu believes that ultimately these materials and the technology may be in use at an industrial scale, deployed by municipalities, after they’re first put to work in smaller devices used by individual households.
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