Project to catalyse removal of ‘forever chemicals’ from water supply

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Engineers are building a system that selectively removes and destroys poly- and perfluorinated substances – PFAS, often referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ - from industrial and municipal wastewaters.

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The team at the University of Illinois Chicago has received funding from the US Department of Energy’s National Alliance for Water Innovation to develop their solution over three years.

Due to widespread use in industrial settings, fertilizers and commercial products that end up in landfills, PFAS seep into groundwater and drinking water supplies but do not break down in the body and are linked to a range of health conditions in humans and animals. Evidence shows that at low levels the compounds can lead to high cholesterol and cancer and have effects on the reproductive and immune system and thyroid. 

The UIC team, led by Brian Chaplin, professor of chemical engineering, will develop a prototype of their system and deploy it for scale-up and pilot testing in California’s Orange County Water District. In the county, frequent droughts mean that the utility is investing in new technology to increase the county’s problematic drinking water supply through water recycling and aquifer recharge. 

Chaplin’s system works through reactive electrochemical membrane filtration. As the water passes through the REM system, adsorbents and catalysts on the membrane trap and destroy PFAS, respectively. 

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With the funding, the UIC team will develop, screen, characterise and optimise efficient electrocatalysts so that the system is successful at removing and, notably, destroying PFAS at high levels with low energy consumption. They will also analyse other systems for comparison and best practices in deploying the technology at a large scale in practical, real-world applications. 

“While REM filtration is one of the only ways to destroy PFAS, these systems so far work best in a limited number of controlled conditions. Our challenge is to make these systems work in the environment,” Chaplin said in a statement. “When we complete this work, this new technology will be ready to be piloted in the industrial and municipal wastewater sectors, which will help us and other practitioners evaluate its impact on facilitating desalination and recycling of non-traditional water streams.” 

Chaplin hopes the development of new catalyst materials will put the system into operation for the successful destructive removal of PFAS in under two minutes of contact time, and with a conversion rate of less than 10 kilowatt-hours per cubic metre, which is said to be an order of magnitude lower than other destructive technologies. 

“PFAS contamination is a widespread problem in our industrial society, and unless we can find successful ways to destroy these forever chemicals, the potential adverse health effects will continue to grow as the substances accumulate in the environment,” Chaplin said. 

Working with Chaplin on the project are Sangil Kim, associate professor of chemical engineering; Ahmed Abokifa, assistant professor of civil, materials and environmental engineering; and scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, Purdue University, and other industrial collaborators, who also received funding for the project.