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Scientists get creative with solar steam generation

Published online 28 August 2016

New solar energy technology is efficient and low cost.

Omnia Gohar

Researchers have developed a steam generation system that can produce 100 °C steam under ambient solar flux and without using optical concentrators.  

In order to be of use, solar energy must be converted into mechanical power, electricity, or heat. The latter, called solar thermal conversion, is one of the most popular methods for solar energy harvesting. 

It includes collecting energy through special absorbers. As the collectors heat up, heat is transferred to the underlying water, and steam is produced when the water reaches a temperature of 100 °C and above. To reach this temperature, lenses or mirrors are used to concentrate the solar energy. 

In this study, however, researchers, led by Gang Chen, professor of power engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, were able to omit optical concentrators altogether and replacing them with low-cost absorbers that efficiently collect sunlight.  

The absorbers, along with low-cost bubble wrap and thermally-insulating foam, can dramatically minimize radiation and heat loss. 

"Our device cannot compete against optical concentrating systems purely on efficiency per area,” explains George Ni of the department of mechanical engineering, and lead author of this study1. But since optical concentrators are usually the most costly component of a solar steam generation system, replacing them in some uses may increase accessibility to solar thermal systems. 

The team expects the scalable technology will be most suitable for applications like desalination and wastewater treatment. “In these applications, relatively lower temperatures are needed,” says Ni. 

“We are currently exploring strategies to make the device more suitable for saline and high pollutant environments.”


  1. Ni, G. et al. Steam generation under one sun enabled by a floating structure with thermal concentration. Nat. Energy (2016).