The race to destroy PFAS, the without end chemical substances 

The race to destroy PFAS, the without end chemical substances 

The quest to scale back the quantity of PFAS within the setting is what led me to an industrial park in a southern suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The jar of PFAS focus in my hand is a part of an illustration organized by my hosts, Revive Environmental, throughout a tour of the corporate’s PFAS destruction website, one of many first within the nation to function commercially and at scale. A couple of yards in entrance of me sits the corporate’s PFAS “Annihilator” in a white delivery container. 

The Annihilator represents simply one in every of a number of applied sciences now vying to interrupt down and destroy PFAS. These span the gamut from established processes like electrochemical oxidation and supercritical water oxidation to rising strategies counting on ultraviolet gentle, plasma, ultrasound, or catalyst-driven thermal processes. Some are deployed in subject checks. Other firms are actively working pilot applications, many with varied divisions of the US Department of Defense and different authorities businesses. And many different applied sciences are nonetheless present process laboratory analysis.

There’s good motive for this. Not solely are PFAS in every single place round us; they’re additionally in us. Humans can’t break down PFAS, and our our bodies battle to clear them from our programs. Studies counsel they’re in my blood and yours—nearly all of Americans’, in actual fact—and so they have been linked to elevated dangers of kidney and testicular most cancers, decreased toddler birthweights, and hypertension. And that’s solely what we find out about now: researchers proceed to grapple with the complete impacts of PFAS on human and environmental well being. 

Revive’s Annihilator and different nascent destruction applied sciences present the primary indicators of promise that these “without end chemical substances” might be faraway from the setting completely, limiting additional human publicity and danger. But destroying PFAS is just one step within the full remediation course of. Across the globe, researchers are growing new applied sciences and strategies to raised perceive, take a look at, and observe the chemical substances—in addition to figuring out various supplies—to get rid of PFAS for good. 

Breaking it down

PFAS traces again to the mid-Twentieth century, when the chemical big 3M invented PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) to stop nonstick coatings from clumping throughout manufacturing. Eventually, 3M started promoting the fabric to fellow chemical firms, together with DuPont, which used the fabric for its then revolutionary coating, Teflon. Later different producers, resembling Chemours and Corteva, would develop and produce their very own manufacturers. The well being impacts of PFAS and extent to which the chemical substances had pervaded the setting wouldn’t be found till the early 2000s, when authorized motion in opposition to DuPont unearthed proof that chemical firms knew a number of the dangers PFAS posed to human well being but deliberately dumped them into waterways and unprotected holding ponds, the place they finally made their means into ingesting water and other people. 

Though it has been years because the preliminary hazards of PFAS had been made public, scientists and regulators have since struggled with how finest to remediate the contamination and hold folks protected. Traditionally, PFAS are handled by means of normal water filtration strategies: granular activated carbon, reverse osmosis, ion trade resins. These strategies work terribly nicely to seize PFAS. The drawback is, although, that after captured, the chemical substances don’t go away. The filters are discarded or chemically washed for reuse, and the notoriously clingy PFAS reenter the setting by means of landfills and wastewater. Incineration—one other conventional mitigation method—dangers sending undestroyed PFAS compounds up the smokestack and into the air. All the whereas, PFAS proceed to be manufactured, used, discarded, and circulated by means of the setting. And so the hunt is on for a method to make the without end chemical substances a bit extra ephemeral.

For the Annihilator, Revive makes use of a destruction technique referred to as supercritical water oxidation (SCWO) to cleave the sturdy carbon fluorine bonds that characterize PFAS compounds. In one other delivery container, which serves because the monitoring station for the Annihilator, David Trueba factors to a financial institution of pc screens displaying information from the assorted sensors contained in the destruction system. Trueba is the president and CEO of Revive and serves as one in every of my guides on the tour. SCWO is actually a PFAS stress cooker, he explains, heating and compressing the contaminated liquid to a supercritical state of above 500 °C and three,200 PSI. In that state, the place water is caught in a kind of purgatory between liquid and gasoline, oxygen turns into soluble, and the ensuing oxidation drives the response that in the end destroys the PFAS. Among different functions, SCWO has been used to decommission and destroy outdated stockpiles of mustard gasoline, the brutal chemical weapon that plagued the trenches of World War I. Battelle, a nationwide analysis nonprofit, tailored SCWO to focus on PFAS and spun off Revive as a personal entity with funding from Viking Global Investors in January 2023. 



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