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Thermo-responsive Hydrogels for Solar-Driven Water Purification

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Monday, February 12, 2024, 10 am

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Chemical Engineering Seminar

Dr. Xiaohui Xu

Associate Research Scholar
Princeton University


The global demand for clean water will continue to grow well into the 21st century. As the climate changes, access to clean water sources will deteriorate, threatening human health and straining precious energy resources. Therefore, addressing water scarcity is of paramount importance to improving the quality of life and prosperity of society. To overcome the current scarcity of fresh water, hydrogels have recently drawn increasing interest as promising materials to sustainably produce potable water from a range of sources. In this talk, I will discuss the design of a solar absorber gel (SAG) that is able to purify water from various harmful reservoirs containing small molecules, oils, metals, and pathogens, using only sunlight. Remarkably, the SAG relies on solar energy to drive a hydrophilic/ hydrophobic phase transformation at the lower critical solution temperature. Since this purification mechanism does not require energy-intensive water evaporation, the passive solar water-purification rate is the highest reported. In the second part of the talk, I will discuss developing rapid-response and antifouling hydrogels to further improve the water production rate and prevent surface fouling. I will discuss how to reconfigure the overall pore structure of the hydrogel, and how the structure change can significantly affect the water transport behavior. Overall, this work shows SAG’s potential to provide facile and affordable access to clean water in a sustainable, low-energy approach.


Dr. Xiaohui Xu obtained her PhD from Chang'an University in 2019, and undertook her thesis research at Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie (HZB) in Germany. After that, she worked as a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow in Chemical and Biological Engineering at Princeton University. She is also a co-founder of Aquapao, a startup company founded in 2021 dedicated to addressing the global water crisis. Her research focuses on the fundamental understanding and engineering of soft materials, particularly in the realms of polymer synthesis, characterization, and their applications in environmental sustainability. Recent recognitions include the Newsweek’s inaugural list America’s Greatest Disruptors: Mind Blowers, Fast Company’s inaugural Most Creative People in Business.

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