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Solar evaporator to enable cheaper small-scale desalination technology

By Brooks Hays
Solar evaporator to enable cheaper small-scale desalination technology
Scientists made a desalination component out of basswood. Photo by John T. Consoli/University of Maryland

April 17 (UPI) -- The development of a new type of solar evaporator promises to power a new generation of cheaper and more efficient small-scale desalination technology.

Roughly a billion people are without access to clean water. Desalination can help turn salt water into potable fresh water, but for many water-starved people and places, the technology is both impractical and prohibitively expensive.

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Thankfully, engineers at the University of Maryland have created a cheaper, more efficient evaporator, a critical component for cost-effective desalination.

The wooden evaporator uses interfacial evaporation to generate steam with the energy of the sun. The component is inexpensive, eco-friendly, portable and efficient.

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"These features make it suitable for off-grid water generation and purification, especially for low-income countries," Liangbing Hu, associate professor of materials science and engineering, said in a news release.

Interfacial vaporators work by absorbing heat from above and pulling salt water up from below. Water evaporates from atop the thin, floating layers, leaving salt behind.

Scientists built their evaporator of thin layers of basswood, which boasts tiny channels that carry water and nutrients up the tree trunk. Researchers drilled additional millimeter-wide channels. To encourage absorption of solar energy, scientists carbonized the top of the wooden layer using high heat.

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The tiny channels in the basswood help draw up saltwater, as well as return salt to the solution below after the water on top evaporates. The wood is also self-cleaning.

Their creation showed great promise in lab tests.

"In the lab, we have successfully demonstrated excellent anti-fouling in a wide range of salt concentrations, with stable steam generation with about 75 percent efficiency," said lead researcher Yudi Kuang.

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Scientists described their invention this week in the journal Advance Materials. Researchers are now working to pair the evaporator with a steam condenser in order to create a working desalination device.

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