A new way to remove harmful ‘forever chemicals’ in water

Credit: University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster

Scientists from the University of Rochester have made a groundbreaking advancement in the fight against pollution from “forever chemicals,” known for their persistence in the environment and harmful effects on health.

These chemicals, found in everyday items like clothing, food packaging, and firefighting foams, have been a growing concern due to their durability and widespread presence in water supplies.

The research team, led by Astrid Müller, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, has developed a new method to tackle a particularly notorious type of these substances, Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).

PFOS, once popular in products for its stain resistance, has been banned in many places around the world because of its negative impact on human and animal health. However, it continues to pollute the environment due to its persistent nature.

Müller and her team, including Ph.D. students in materials science, have innovated a way to break down PFOS using nanocatalysts.

These tiny catalysts are created through a sophisticated technique involving pulsed lasers in liquid, which allows the researchers to finely tune the surface chemistry and size of the nanoparticles.

The method stands out because it deviates from traditional chemistry practices, utilizing the unique properties of light to achieve precise control over the nanoparticles’ formation.

The researchers attach these nanoparticles to a type of carbon paper that loves water, providing an inexpensive and efficient base for the process.

By applying lithium hydroxide in high concentrations, they successfully destroy the PFOS chemicals, stripping them of their fluorine atoms.

One of the most significant aspects of this new method is its cost-effectiveness compared to existing treatments, which often rely on expensive materials like boron-doped diamonds.

Müller’s team has shown that their approach could reduce the cost of cleaning a cubic meter of polluted water from the astronomical $8.5 million required for the diamond method to a fraction of that cost, making it nearly 100 times cheaper.

Looking ahead, Müller is keen on exploring why lithium hydroxide is so effective and investigating if there are even more affordable materials that could be used. Her aim is to apply this technology to a wider range of PFAS chemicals, many of which are still in use despite being linked to serious health issues, including developmental problems in infants and kidney cancer.

Müller acknowledges the challenges in completely eliminating PFAS chemicals due to their important roles in consumer products and essential green technologies.

She envisions a sustainable, circular approach to using PFAS, where electrocatalytic methods could safely break down these chemicals without releasing them into the environment.

Although commercial application may still be some time away, Müller has already taken steps towards bringing this technology to the public by filing a patent.

She imagines this solution being implemented in wastewater treatment facilities and by companies looking to clean up sites contaminated by PFAS production.

Furthermore, she highlights the social justice potential of this technology, as it could offer a low-cost, easily deployable solution for pollution in lower-income areas worldwide, leveraging solar power for a clean energy source.

The research findings can be found in the Journal of Catalysis.

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