Article | Published:

Highly efficient solar vapour generation via hierarchically nanostructured gels

Nature Nanotechnologyvolume 13pages489495 (2018) | Download Citation


Solar vapour generation is an efficient way of harvesting solar energy for the purification of polluted or saline water. However, water evaporation suffers from either inefficient utilization of solar energy or relies on complex and expensive light-concentration accessories. Here, we demonstrate a hierarchically nanostructured gel (HNG) based on polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) and polypyrrole (PPy) that serves as an independent solar vapour generator. The converted energy can be utilized in situ to power the vaporization of water contained in the molecular meshes of the PVA network, where water evaporation is facilitated by the skeleton of the hydrogel. A floating HNG sample evaporated water with a record high rate of 3.2 kg m−2 h−1 via 94% solar energy from 1 sun irradiation, and 18–23 litres of water per square metre of HNG was delivered daily when purifying brine water. These values were achievable due to the reduced latent heat of water evaporation in the molecular mesh under natural sunlight.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Additional information

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


  1. 1.

    Lewis, N. S. Research opportunities to advance solar energy utilization. Science 351, aad1920 (2016).

  2. 2.

    Chen, J. et al. Micro-cable structured textile for simultaneously harvesting solar and mechanical energy. Nat. Energy 1, 16138 (2016).

  3. 3.

    Wallace, G. G. et al. Nanoelectrodes: energy conversion and storage. Mater. Today 12, 20–27 (2009).

  4. 4.

    Shannon, M. A. et al. Science and technology for water purification in the coming decades. Nature 452, 301310 (2008).

  5. 5.

    Narayan, G. P. et al. The potential of solar-driven humidification–dehumidification desalination for small-scale decentralized water production. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 14, 11871201 (2010).

  6. 6.

    Williams, A. Solar powered water desalination heats up in Chile. Water Wastewat. Int. 28, 24–28 (2013).

  7. 7.

    Elimelech, M. & Phillip, W. A. The future of seawater desalination: energy, technology, and the environment. Science 333, 712717 (2011).

  8. 8.

    Li, C., Goswami, Y. & Stefanakos, E. Solar assisted sea water desalination: a review. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 19, 136163 (2013).

  9. 9.

    Jean, J. et al. Pathways for solar photovoltaics. Energy Environ. Sci. 8, 1200–1219 (2015).

  10. 10.

    Romano, M. S. et al. Carbon nanotube-reduced graphene oxide composites for thermal energy harvesting applications. Adv. Mater. 25, 6602–6606 (2013).

  11. 11.

    Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems. Photovoltaics Report (2014);

  12. 12.

    IPCC. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report (eds Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R. K. & Meyer L. A.) (IPCC, 2015);

  13. 13.

    Wang, J. et al. High-performance photothermal conversion of narrow-bandgap Ti2O3 nanoparticles. Adv. Mater. 29, 1603730 (2017).

  14. 14.

    Hu, X. et al. Tailoring graphene oxide-based aerogels for efficient solar steam generation under one sun. Adv. Mater. 29, 1604031 (2017).

  15. 15.

    Ito, Y. et al. Multifunctional porous graphene for high-efficiency steam generation by heat localization. Adv. Mater. 27, 4302–4307 (2015).

  16. 16.

    Zhang, L., Tang, B., Wu, J., Li, R. & Wang, P. Hydrophobic light-to-heat conversion membranes with self-healing ability for interfacial solar heating. Adv. Mater. 27, 4889–4894 (2015).

  17. 17.

    Liu, C. et al. High-performance large-scale solar steam generation with nanolayers of reusable biomimetic nanoparticles. Adv. Sustain. Syst. 1, 1600013 (2017).

  18. 18.

    Zhou, L. et al. 3D self-assembly of aluminium nanoparticles for plasmon-enhanced solar desalination. Nat. Photon. 10, 393–398 (2016).

  19. 19.

    Bae, K. et al. Flexible thin-film black gold membranes with ultrabroadband plasmonic nanofocusing for efficient solar vapour generation. Nat. Commun. 6, 10103 (2015).

  20. 20.

    Zhou, L. et al. Self-assembly of highly efficient, broadband plasmonic absorbers for solar steam generation. Sci. Adv. 2, e1501227 (2016).

  21. 21.

    Ni, G. et al. Steam generation under one sun enabled by a floating structure with thermal concentration. Nat. Energy 1, 16126 (2016).

  22. 22.

    Liu, Z. et al. Extremely cost-effective and efficient solar vapor generation under nonconcentrated illumination using thermally isolated black paper. Glob. Chall. 1, 1600003 (2017).

  23. 23.

    Hadi, G. et al. Solar steam generation by heat localization. Nat. Commun. 5, 5449 (2014).

  24. 24.

    Li, X. et al. Graphene oxide-based efficient and scalable solar desalination under one sun with a confined 2D water path. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 13953–13958 (2016).

  25. 25.

    Zielinski, M. S. et al. Hollow mesoporous plasmonic nanoshells for enhanced solar vapor generation. Nano Lett. 16, 2159–2167 (2016).

  26. 26.

    Neumann, O. et al. Compact solar autoclave based on steam generation using broadband light-harvesting nanoparticles. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 11677–11681 (2013).

  27. 27.

    Phelan, P., Taylor, R., Adrian, R., Prasher, R. & Otanicar, T. in Nanoparticle Heat Transfer Fluid Flow (eds Minkowycz, W. J., Sparrow, E. M. & Abraham, J.) 123–142 (CRC, Boca Raton, FL, 2012).

  28. 28.

    Zhao, F., Shi, Y., Pan, L. & Yu, G. Multifunctional nanostructured conductive polymer gels: synthesis, properties, and applications. Acc. Chem. Res. 50, 1734–1743 (2017).

  29. 29.

    Bellich, B., Borgogna, M., Cok, M. & Cesàro, A.Water evaporation from gel beads. J. Therm. Anal. Calorim. 103, 81–88 (2011).

  30. 30.

    Ma, C., Shi, Y., Pena, D. A., Peng, L. & Yu, G. Thermally responsive hydrogel blends: a general drug carrier model for controlled drug release. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 127, 7484–7488 (2015).

  31. 31.

    Shi, Y., Ma, C., Peng, L. & Yu, G. Conductive “smart” hybrid hydrogels with PNIPAM and nanostructured conductive polymers. Adv. Funct. Mater. 25, 1219–1225 (2015).

  32. 32.

    Jin, L. & Bai, R. Mechanisms of lead adsorption on chitosan/PVA hydrogel beads. Langmuir 18, 9765–9770 (2002).

  33. 33.

    Wang, Y. et al. Dopant-enabled supramolecular approach for controlled synthesis of nanostructured conductive polymer hydrogels. Nano Lett. 15, 7736–7741 (2015).

  34. 34.

    Mansur, H. S., Oréfice, R. L. & Mansur, A. A. Characterization of poly (vinyl alcohol)/poly (ethylene glycol) hydrogels and PVA-derived hybrids by small-angle X-ray scattering and FTIR spectroscopy. Polymer 45, 7193–7202 (2004).

  35. 35.

    Bairi, P., Roy, B., Routh, P., Sen, K. & Nandi, A. K. Self-sustaining, fluorescent and semi-conducting co-assembled organogel of Fmoc protected phenylalanine with aromatic amines. Soft Matter 8, 7436–7445 (2012).

  36. 36.

    Sun, G., Li, Z., Liang, R., Weng, L. T. & Zhang, L.Super stretchable hydrogel achieved by non-aggregated spherulites with diameters < 5nm. Nat. Commun. 7, 12095 (2016).

  37. 37.

    Miyazaki, M. et al. Infrared spectroscopic evidence for protonated water clusters forming nanoscale cages. Science 304, 1129–1137 (2004).

  38. 38.

    Fujii, A. & Kenta, M. Infrared spectroscopic studies on hydrogen-bonded water networks in gas phase clusters. Int. Rev. Phys. Chem. 32, 266–307 (2013).

  39. 39.

    Liu, Y. et al. A bioinspired, reusable, paper-based system for high-performance large-scale evaporation. Adv. Mater. 27, 2768–2774 (2015).

  40. 40.

    Birgersson, E., Li, H. & Wu, S. Transient analysis of temperature-sensitive neutral hydrogels. J. Mech. Phys. Solids 56, 444–466 (2008).

  41. 41.

    World Ocean Database 2013 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accessed September 2013);

  42. 42.

    World Health Organization (WHO). Safe Drinking-Water from Desalination (WHO, 2011);

  43. 43.

    Surwade, S. P. et al. Water desalination using nanoporous single-layer graphene. Nat. Nanotech. 10, 459–464 (2015).

Download references


G.Y. acknowledges financial support from a Sloan Research Fellowship, a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, and a National Science Foundation award (NSF-CMMI-1537894). Molecular dynamics simulations were performed using a Summit supercomputer supported by the NSF (NSF-ACI-1532235).

Author information

Author notes

  1. These authors contributed equally: F. Zhao, X. Zhou.


  1. Materials Science and Engineering Program and Department of Mechanical Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA

    • Fei Zhao
    • , Xingyi Zhou
    • , Ye Shi
    • , Megan Alexander
    • , Samantha Mendez
    •  & Guihua Yu
  2. Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA

    • Xin Qian
    • , Xinpeng Zhao
    •  & Ronggui Yang
  3. Key Laboratory of Photoelectronic/Eletrophotonic Conversion Materials, School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Beijing Institute of Technology, Beijing, China

    • Liangti Qu


  1. Search for Fei Zhao in:

  2. Search for Xingyi Zhou in:

  3. Search for Ye Shi in:

  4. Search for Xin Qian in:

  5. Search for Megan Alexander in:

  6. Search for Xinpeng Zhao in:

  7. Search for Samantha Mendez in:

  8. Search for Ronggui Yang in:

  9. Search for Liangti Qu in:

  10. Search for Guihua Yu in:


G.Y. supervised the entire project. G.Y., F.Z., X.Z. and L.Q. conceived the idea and co-wrote the manuscript. F.Z. and X.Z. performed materials fabrication and characterization and carried out data analyses. F.Z. and Y.S. performed the numerical simulations. X.Q., X.Z. and R.Y. performed the molecular dynamics simulations and differential scanning calorimetry measurements on the gel samples. M.A. and S.M. assisted in experimental work. R.Y. and L.Q. assisted in the design of experiments and interpretation of results. All the authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Ronggui Yang or Liangti Qu or Guihua Yu.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–21, Supplementary references.

About this article

Publication history




Issue Date


Further reading