Concentrated Solar Power could benefit from this structure for small-scale or low temperature applications.

Scientists developed a new material structure, using a layer of graphite flakes and an underlying carbon foam, which generates steam by soaking up the sun. 

The product is a porous, insulating material structure that floats on water. When sunlight hits the structure’s surface, it creates a hotspot in the graphite, drawing water up through the material’s pores, where it evaporates as steam. The brighter the light, the more steam is generated.

The new material is able to convert 85 percent of incoming solar energy into steam -a significant improvement over recent approaches to solar-powered steam generation. What’s more, the setup loses very little heat in the process, and can produce steam at relatively low solar intensity. This would mean that, if scaled up, the setup would likely not require complex, costly systems to highly concentrate sunlight.

Hadi Ghasemi, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, says the sponge-like structure can be made from relatively inexpensive materials -a particular advantage for a variety of compact, steam-powered applications.

“Steam is important for desalination, hygiene systems, and sterilization,” said Ghasemi, who led the development of the structure. “Especially in remote areas where the sun is the only source of energy, if you can generate steam with solar energy, it would be very useful.”

The MIT approach generates steam at a solar intensity about 10 times that of a sunny day -the lowest optical concentration reported thus far. The implication, the researchers say, is that steam-generating applications can function with lower sunlight concentration and less-expensive tracking systems.

“This is a huge advantage in cost-reduction,” Ghasemi explained. “That’s exciting for us because we’ve come up with a new approach to solar steam generation.”

The approach itself is relatively simple: Since steam is generated at the surface of a liquid, Ghasemi looked for a material that could both efficiently absorb sunlight and generate steam at a liquid’s surface.

After trials with multiple materials, he settled on a thin, double-layered, disc-shaped structure. Its top layer is made from graphite that the researchers exfoliated by placing the material in a microwave.

The structure’s bottom layer is a carbon foam that contains pockets of air to keep the foam afloat and act as an insulator, preventing heat from escaping to the underlying liquid. The foam also contains very small pores that allow water to creep up through the structure via capillary action.

As sunlight hits the structure, it creates a hotspot in the graphite layer, generating a pressure gradient that draws water up through the carbon foam. As water seeps into the graphite layer, the heat concentrated in the graphite turns the water into steam. The structure works much like a sponge that, when placed in water on a hot, sunny day, can continuously absorb and evaporate liquid.

Details of the new steam-generating structure is reported in the journal Nature Communications.