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Good InfoMIT Makes ‘Astonishing’ Discovery That Light Can Vaporize Water Without Heat–for Clean...

MIT Makes ‘Astonishing’ Discovery That Light Can Vaporize Water Without Heat–for Clean Energy and Desalination

A photomolecular effect experiment in action – MIT Press, released

It’s not every year that a major discovery is made in the basic natural sciences of Earth, but using painfully precise measurements, MIT has written a new chapter in something that most people probably thought they knew completely: evaporation.

The scientists say the discovery could explain “mysterious measurements” in the literature of clouds which may increase the precision of climate modeling, while also aiding in industrial applications.

In this study, the discovery that evaporation can occur just with light and without heat was so unexpected and surprising that it was subjected to 14 different tests and measurements to try and disprove what the scientists observed.

One consistent finding was that the air temperature above the place at which water molecules were turning into gases would cool down briefly then level out, showing definitively that thermal energy is not required.

“I think this has a lot of applications,” said Professor of Power Engineering at MIT, Gang Chen. “We’re exploring all these different directions. And of course, it also affects the basic science, like the effects of clouds on climate, because clouds are the most uncertain aspect of climate models.”

Other fascinating details from the study include the data point that photoevaporation is strongest when the light arrives at a 45° angle, and/or when the light is on the green spectrum, which is odd, MIT press writes, because that’s the color at which water is most transparent.

Without every leaf being turned over, Chen et al.’s working hypothesis is that when arriving at sufficient angle and force, light particles can knock loose single water molecules.

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They have named this the photomolecular effect, by analogy with the photoelectric effect that was discovered by Heinrich Hertz in 1887.

Clouds absorb sunlight, but for 80 years, studies have consistently shown that they absorb more sunlight than conventional physics predicts would be possible.

“Those experiments are based on satellite data and flight data,“ Chen explains. “They fly an airplane on top of and below the clouds, and there are also data based on the ocean temperature and radiation balance. And they all conclude that there is more absorption by clouds than theory could calculate.”

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Graduate student James Zhang, a co-author on the paper, adds that solar desalination research also shows that there are happenings beyond what conventional physics would predict based on current knowledge of how water acts.

The team believes the photomolecular effect could be behind both mysteries.

Since demonstrating the photomolecular effect at the Proceedings of the Nat. Academy of Sciences, Chen says he has already been approached by companies looking to harness this effect for everything from drying paper in a paper mill to evaporating maple syrup.

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