Breakthrough in PFAS cleanup: New method destroys toxic ‘forever chemicals’

This innovative method breaks down these persistent pollutants into harmless

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A groundbreaking discovery by scientists at the University of California, Riverside, offers a promising solution to the widespread contamination of water supplies by harmful PFAS, often referred to as “forever chemicals.” This innovative method breaks down these persistent pollutants into harmless compounds, providing a sustainable and highly effective means of cleaning up contaminated water.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are synthetic chemicals widely used since the 1940s for their resistance to heat, water, and lipids. These chemicals are found in a myriad of consumer products, including non-stick cookware, water-resistant fabrics, and firefighting foams. Despite their utility, PFAS are notoriously difficult to break down, leading to their accumulation in the environment and in human bodies. Studies have linked PFAS exposure to severe health issues, including various cancers, liver damage, and developmental problems in infants and children.

Researchers at UC Riverside have developed a novel, patent-pending process that uses a combination of hydrogen infusion and high-energy, short-wavelength ultraviolet (UV) light to destroy PFAS in contaminated water. This method significantly improves upon existing water-treatment technologies, increasing the destruction of PFAS from 10% to nearly 100% without producing harmful byproducts.

The process involves infusing contaminated water with hydrogen, which polarizes the water molecules, making them more reactive. The water is then exposed to high-energy UV light, which catalyzes chemical reactions that break down the strong fluorine-carbon bonds in PFAS molecules. This two-step approach effectively dismantles the chemical structure of PFAS, rendering them harmless.

Haizhou Liu, an associate professor in UCR’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering and the corresponding author of the study, emphasized the sustainability of this new technology. “After the interaction, hydrogen will become water. The advantage of this technology is that it is very sustainable,” Liu said. The research, published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters, highlights that no undesirable byproducts or impurities are generated during the process.

The research was supported by a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The lead author of the study, Gongde Chen, now works as an engineer for the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board after earning his doctoral degree from UCR. Liu’s team is currently working on scaling up the technology to handle larger volumes of water, with additional funding from a $50,000 proof-of-concept grant from UCR’s Office of Technology Partnership.

PFAS contamination is a pervasive issue, affecting an estimated 89 million people in the U.S. alone. These chemicals are found in tap water across many communities, particularly in areas near industrial sites, military bases, and landfills. PFAS have been detected in the blood of nearly all individuals tested, highlighting their widespread presence and persistence.

The health risks associated with PFAS are well-documented. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has linked PFAS exposure to increased risks of prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers, as well as fertility issues, developmental delays in children, and immune system complications. The ubiquity of these chemicals has prompted regulatory action at both federal and state levels.

The EPA has recently proposed new federal limits on several types of PFAS, requiring water utilities to test for these chemicals and take action if levels exceed the limits. The Biden administration has also allocated $9 billion in federal funding for PFAS cleanup as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This funding aims to help states, tribes, and local governments detect and remove PFAS from water supplies.

Given the regulatory push, Liu’s team is optimistic about the commercialization and widespread application of their technology. “We are optimizing it by trying to make this technology versatile for a wide range of PFAS-contaminated source waters,” Liu explained. The technology has shown promising results in both drinking water and various types of industrial wastewater.

Experts and environmental advocates have praised this breakthrough. Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, stressed the importance of innovative solutions to PFAS contamination. “There is a continued need for innovation in PFAS protection technology, particularly because of the byproducts of filtration at water treatment plants,” Benesh said.

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