Freshwater scarcity is a vital societal challenge related to climate change, population pressure, and agricultural and industrial demands. Therefore, sustainable desalination/purification of salty/contaminated water for human uses is particularly relevant. Membrane distillation is an emerging hybrid thermal-membrane technology with the potential to overcome the drawbacks of conventional desalination by a synergic exploitation of the water-energy nexus. Although membrane distillation is considered a green technology, efficient heat management remains a critical concern affecting the cost of the process and hindering its viability at large scale. A multidisciplinary approach that involves materials chemistry, physical chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials and polymer science is required to solve this problem. The combination of solar energy with membrane distillation is considered a potentially feasible low-cost approach for providing high-quality freshwater with a low carbon footprint. In particular, recent discoveries about efficient light-to-heat conversion in nanomaterials have opened unprecedented perspectives for the implementation of sunlight-based renewable energy in membrane distillation. The integration of nanofillers enabling photothermal effects into membranes has been demonstrated to be able to significantly enhance the energy efficiency without impacting on economic costs. Here, we provide a comprehensive overview on the state of the art, the opportunities, open challenges and pitfalls of the emerging field of solar-driven membrane distillation. We also assess the peculiar physicochemical properties and synthesis scalability of photothermal materials, as well as the strategies for their integration into polymeric nanocomposite membranes enabling efficient light-to-heat conversion and freshwater.
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