Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Highly efficient solar vapour generation via hierarchically nanostructured gels


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Schematic of highly efficient solar vapour generation based on tailored water transport in HNGs.
Fig. 2: Characterization of the HNGs.
Fig. 3: Tunable water transport and solar absorption of the HNGs.
Fig. 4: Vapour generation under 1 sun.
Fig. 5: Solar desalination performance and durability of the HNGs.
Fig. 6: Outdoor solar water purification using HNGs in natural sunlight.


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

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

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

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

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

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

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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. 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. 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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

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

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

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

  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

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Ronggui Yang, Liangti Qu or Guihua Yu.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

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

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–21, Supplementary references.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Zhao, F., Zhou, X., Shi, Y. et al. Highly efficient solar vapour generation via hierarchically nanostructured gels. Nature Nanotech 13, 489–495 (2018).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Find nanotechnology articles, nanomaterial data and patents all in one place. Visit Nano by Nature Research