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Spongelike Structure Converts Solar Energy into Steam

A new material structure developed at MIT generates steam by soaking up the sun.

The structure — a layer of graphite flakes and an underlying carbon foam — 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.

“Steam is important for desalination, hygiene systems, and sterilization,” says Hadi Ghasemi, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, 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.”

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