Steam without boiling water

Engineers at Rice have devised an ingenious process that allows the generation of steam without boiling water using nanotechnology (particles that are extraordinarily small) plus ordinary sunlight.  Among other applications, this could revolutionize the possibilities of solar energy.

In the Rice experiment, the researchers stirred a small amount of nanoparticles into water and put the mixture into a glass vessel. They then focused sunlight on the mixture with a lens.

The nanoparticles — either carbon or gold-coated silicon dioxide beads — have a diameter shorter than the wavelength of visible light. That allows them to absorb most of a wave of light’s energy. If they had been larger, the particles would have scattered much of the light.

In the focused light, a nanoparticle rapidly becomes hot enough to vaporize the layer of water around it. It then becomes enveloped in a bubble of steam. That, in turn, insulates it from the mass of water that, an instant before the steam formed, was bathing and cooling it.

Insulated in that fashion, the particle heats up further and forms more steam. It eventually becomes buoyant enough to rise. As it floats toward the surface, it hits and merges with other bubbles.

At the surface, the nanoparticles-in-bubbles release their steam into the air. They then sink back toward the bottom of the vessel. When they encounter the focused light, the process begins again. All of this occurs within seconds.

In all, about 80 percent of the light energy a nanoparticle absorbs goes into making steam, and only 20 percent is “lost” in heating the water. This is far different from creating steam in a tea kettle. There, all the water must reach boiling temperature before an appreciable number of water molecules fly into the air as steam.

The phenomenon is such that it is possible to put the vessel containing the water-and-nanoparticle soup into an ice bath, focus light on it and make steam. . . .

Halas said the nanoparticles are not expensive to make and, because they act essentially as catalysts, are not used up. A nanoparticle steam generator could be used over and over. And, as James Watt and other 18th-century inventors showed, if you can generate steam easily, you can create an industrial revolution.

via Making steam without boiling water, thanks to nanoparticles – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • LAJ

    Cool!

  • LAJ

    Cool!

  • Pete

    At my age, I can’t keep track of my glasses, let alone nanoparticles. So far I haven’t ever lost a stove, so I’ll just keep using it to boil my water.

  • Pete

    At my age, I can’t keep track of my glasses, let alone nanoparticles. So far I haven’t ever lost a stove, so I’ll just keep using it to boil my water.

  • SKPeterson

    Somehow, somewhere, there is someone in the Green movement devising an argument about how this is harmful and dangerous to the environment. I mean, what will happen if these so-called engineered “nanoparticles” get loose and damage natural nanoparticles. Why we might be committing ecocide in our quest for cheap energy.

  • SKPeterson

    Somehow, somewhere, there is someone in the Green movement devising an argument about how this is harmful and dangerous to the environment. I mean, what will happen if these so-called engineered “nanoparticles” get loose and damage natural nanoparticles. Why we might be committing ecocide in our quest for cheap energy.

  • WebMonk

    I’d be interested to get some more information on this. One possible difficulty for industrial use is the temperature of the steam created – you generally need pretty hot steam to drive turbines and pumps. If it is only marginally above the boiling point, it will cool down too quickly, condensing back into liquid water.

    There also needs to be a LOT of pressure, and there are relatively few transparent materials strong enough to both allow light through, but also strong enough to withstand the necessary pressures for electricity generation.

    One way to work around this would be to concentrate the light energy so that the nanoparticles absorb more energy very quickly, transferring it to the steam quickly before the bubble of steam reaches the surface.

    Instead of energy generation, the article’s mention of desalinization plants could be a huge possibility.

    The quote by Halas in the article definitely suggested it is best suited for small, portable uses rather than large scale energy generation.

  • WebMonk

    I’d be interested to get some more information on this. One possible difficulty for industrial use is the temperature of the steam created – you generally need pretty hot steam to drive turbines and pumps. If it is only marginally above the boiling point, it will cool down too quickly, condensing back into liquid water.

    There also needs to be a LOT of pressure, and there are relatively few transparent materials strong enough to both allow light through, but also strong enough to withstand the necessary pressures for electricity generation.

    One way to work around this would be to concentrate the light energy so that the nanoparticles absorb more energy very quickly, transferring it to the steam quickly before the bubble of steam reaches the surface.

    Instead of energy generation, the article’s mention of desalinization plants could be a huge possibility.

    The quote by Halas in the article definitely suggested it is best suited for small, portable uses rather than large scale energy generation.

  • http://www.matthewcochran.net/blog Matt Cochran

    @SKPeterson,

    Looks like a good time to write a novel about the nanoparticles finding their way into the oceans and causing them to boil away. They turn out to be too small to filter out of the water and they never stop working. Copyright 2012: Matt Cochran

  • http://www.matthewcochran.net/blog Matt Cochran

    @SKPeterson,

    Looks like a good time to write a novel about the nanoparticles finding their way into the oceans and causing them to boil away. They turn out to be too small to filter out of the water and they never stop working. Copyright 2012: Matt Cochran

  • WebMonk

    Another thought – this won’t make very much steam. They are still limited by the amount of energy hitting the water. The nanoparticles capture much more of the energy than clear water would capture, but they are still limited by how much energy from sunlight hits the container.

    Not very much, unless it’s either a very large container or the light is concentrated.

    If you’re concentrating the sunlight, you’ll need the fields of mirrors focusing the light onto a central location. At that point, though, I suspect it would be better to just do a direct boiling of the water. (for industrial scales)

  • WebMonk

    Another thought – this won’t make very much steam. They are still limited by the amount of energy hitting the water. The nanoparticles capture much more of the energy than clear water would capture, but they are still limited by how much energy from sunlight hits the container.

    Not very much, unless it’s either a very large container or the light is concentrated.

    If you’re concentrating the sunlight, you’ll need the fields of mirrors focusing the light onto a central location. At that point, though, I suspect it would be better to just do a direct boiling of the water. (for industrial scales)

  • WebMonk

    Matt, just make sure that they’re self-replicating ones, and then you’ll really have an awesome story! Grey goo!! :-D

  • WebMonk

    Matt, just make sure that they’re self-replicating ones, and then you’ll really have an awesome story! Grey goo!! :-D

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Ever see the TV series Odyssey 5? Nanotech will kill us!

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Ever see the TV series Odyssey 5? Nanotech will kill us!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Wow, first Veith mentions Twinkies, and now a science experiment done at Rice. Hmm…

    Anyhow, this is really interesting. One does wonder, should there ever prove a real-world application, how exactly people would deal with the particles. How to put them where they need to go, and what to do if one wants to remove them.

    Anyhow, I bet this first gets used as a more-efficient water purification system.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Wow, first Veith mentions Twinkies, and now a science experiment done at Rice. Hmm…

    Anyhow, this is really interesting. One does wonder, should there ever prove a real-world application, how exactly people would deal with the particles. How to put them where they need to go, and what to do if one wants to remove them.

    Anyhow, I bet this first gets used as a more-efficient water purification system.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com John

    That’s pretty cool!

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com John

    That’s pretty cool!

  • Steve Gehrke

    It’s an interesting observation but it doesn’t bypass the laws of thermodynamics. You still can’t get any more energy out than you put in and low temperature steam is very inefficient for generation energy (see Carnot cycle). This article is making an insignificant point about boiling the entire volume of water at once vs boiling it one nanoparticle of bound surface water at a time. At least so says this professor of thermodynamics.

  • Steve Gehrke

    It’s an interesting observation but it doesn’t bypass the laws of thermodynamics. You still can’t get any more energy out than you put in and low temperature steam is very inefficient for generation energy (see Carnot cycle). This article is making an insignificant point about boiling the entire volume of water at once vs boiling it one nanoparticle of bound surface water at a time. At least so says this professor of thermodynamics.