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  1. Free, publicly-accessible full text available May 1, 2023
  2. Solar-thermal desalination (STD) is a potentially low-cost, sustainable approach for providing high-quality fresh water in the absence of water and energy infrastructures. Despite recent efforts to advance STD by improving heat-absorbing materials and system designs, the best strategies for maximizing STD performance remain uncertain. To address this problem, we identify three major steps in distillation-based STD: (i) light-to-heat energy conversion, (ii) thermal vapor generation, and (iii) conversion of vapor to water via condensation. Using specific water productivity as a quantitative metric for energy efficiency, we show that efficient recovery of the latent heat of condensation is critical for STD performance enhancement, because solar vapor generation has already been pushed toward its performance limit. We also demonstrate that STD cannot compete with photovoltaic reverse osmosis desalination in energy efficiency. We conclude by emphasizing the importance of factors other than energy efficiency, including cost, ease of maintenance, and applicability to hypersaline waters.