The world can be a pretty dirty place. Civilizations have struggled for centuries to combat dirt and germs. Now, a new technology aims to help clean up the world -- literally.

One of the most important things to keeping people healthy is sterilization: medical equipment needs to be clean and human waste needs to be dealt with in order to keep disease at bay. In the developed world, that's relatively easy to accomplish. But what about places where access to electricity and other infrastructure is far from guaranteed?

Researchers at Houston-based Rice University, funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have developed an innovative system to do just that, using only the power of the sun itself and some hardworking nanoparticles. Their steam-powered autoclave uses light-absorbing nanoparticles to convert solar energy directly into steam. The nanoparticles heat up so quickly that the surrounding water instantly vaporizes.

The system generates enough heat and pressure to kill even the most heat-resistant living microbes, spores and viruses.

"Sanitation technology isn't glamorous but it's a matter of life and death for 2.5 billion people," Naomi Halas, the director of Rice's Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) and lead researcher on the project, said on Gizmag.com. "For this to really work, you need a technology that can be completely off-grid, that's not that large, that functions relatively quickly, is easy to handle and doesn't have dangerous components. Our Solar Steam system has all of that, and it's the only technology we've seen that can completely sterilize waste."

The Solar Steam system can handle the waste of a family of four with just two treatments per week. It is so efficient, the creators say, that it even works with ice-cold water, and generates an overall energy efficiency of 24 percent -- higher even than commercial photovoltaic solar panels which can only boast around 15 percent efficiency.

This technology has other potential applications besides sterilization. With an efficiency rating that high, the system has exciting potential applications in electricity generation. Despite potential commercial opportunities, though, the researchers chose to focus on sterilization applications for the developing world. The team hopes to join forces with a waste treatment company called Sanivation to conduct field tests of the system in Kenya.

Check out how the system works in the video below:

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