Solar Nanoheater: A Third World Germ Killer

It looks like something you’d use to pick up the Moldova soccer league on your TV from a distant satellite. Or zap airplanes with deadly rays. But it’s actually a solar autoclave, and it could become a very big deal in developing countries.

Autoclaves are the machines that using super-hot steam to kill bacteria on medical and dental instruments. They require energy to operate, of course, but a good deal of the world – encompassing perhaps 2 billion people – doesn’t have reliable power. That means no autoclaves, leaving doctors to use chemical sterilizers, when they can get their hands on them (they’re expensive and difficult to transport).

solar autoclave nanoheater

image via Rice University

Enter the off-grid autoclave, taking advantage of some very cutting-edge solar power technology.

Actually, enter two of them – one that sterilizes medical and dental instruments, another that disinfects human and animal wastes.

These machines operate in a fascinating new way, by focusing sunlight on metallic or carbon nanoparticles immersed in water. Because these particles are adept at capturing a broad spectrum of sunlight, they heat up really fast. From there, according to a release, “A layer of steam forms on the nanoheaters and buoys them up to the water’s surface. They release the steam and sink back down into the water to repeat the process.”

That means that steam can be created without boiling the entire container of water – a big efficiency gain.

In this video, one of the Rice University scientists behind this technology, Naomi Halas, explains how it works – and shows that the nanoparticles work so well, they can actually make steam from ice water. Check it out:

Halas presented this technology earlier this week at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, which said she and her colleagues have formed a company to try to make that difficult leap from prototype to commercial product, with making the machine less expensive and fragile chief goals.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • John Redman

    And the same technology will make an enormously more safe and efficient alcohol still for the home whiskey (vodka, rum, you name it) maker, right?

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