Self-floating hybrid hydrogels assembled with conducting polymer hollow spheres and silica aerogel microparticles for solar steam generation†
The design and synthesis of solar steam generation materials have received considerable attention due to their capacity to produce freshwater from seawater or contaminated water by a straightforward utilisation of solar energy. The practical application of these materials, however, is restricted by their low evaporation efficiency and non-durable floating capacity on water. Herein, flexible and self-floating polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) based hybrid hydrogels for solar steam generation are designed and synthesized by assembling two types of functional particles within the network: conducting polymer hollow spheres (CPHSs) for achieving solar absorption and heat conversion, and silica aerogel microparticles for density reduction and efficient energy conversion confined to a small amount of surrounding water. Following a freezing process, functionalized hybrid hydrogels with macro-sized channels are generated, contributing to rapid water supply. The Janus surface nature, with one side being hydrophilic (contact angle ca. 60°) and another hydrophobic (contact angle up to 135°), of the hybrid hydrogel was found due to the formation of a gradient distribution of silica aerogel particles via controlling the gelation conditions. Consequently, the density of the hybrid hydrogels is controlled in the range of 0.8–1.0 g cm−3 and the thermal conductivity of the corresponding xerogels in the range of 0.030–0.035 W m−1 K−1, depending on the content of the silica aerogels. High water production of the hybrid hydrogel at a rate of 1.83 kg m−2 h−1 under 1 sun illumination has been demonstrated, which is an important step towards a cost-effective solution for the scarcity of clean water.