The race to destroy PFAS, the without end chemical compounds 

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The hunt to cut 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 indication 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 number of yards in entrance of me sits the corporate’s PFAS “Annihilator” in a white delivery container. 

The Annihilator represents simply considered one 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 methods counting on ultraviolet mild, plasma, ultrasound, or catalyst-driven thermal processes. Some are deployed in area exams. Different corporations are actively working pilot applications, many with varied divisions of the US Division of Protection and different authorities companies. And plenty of different applied sciences are nonetheless present process laboratory analysis.

There’s good cause for this. Not solely are PFAS in all places round us; they’re additionally in us. People can’t break down PFAS, and our our bodies wrestle to clear them from our techniques. Research recommend they’re in my blood and yours—nearly all of Individuals’, in reality—they usually 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 total 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 compounds” will be faraway from the setting completely, limiting additional human publicity and threat. However destroying PFAS is just one step within the full remediation course of. Throughout the globe, researchers are growing new applied sciences and methods to raised perceive, take a look at, and observe the chemical compounds—in addition to figuring out different supplies—to get rid of PFAS for good. 

Breaking it down

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

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

For the Annihilator, Revive makes use of a destruction technique known 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 displays displaying knowledge from the assorted sensors contained in the destruction system. Trueba is the president and CEO of Revive and serves as considered one of my guides on the tour. SCWO is actually a PFAS strain 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 type of purgatory between liquid and gasoline, oxygen turns into soluble, and the ensuing oxidation drives the response that finally destroys the PFAS. Amongst different functions, SCWO has been used to decommission and destroy previous stockpiles of mustard gasoline, the brutal chemical weapon that plagued the trenches of World Battle I. Battelle, a nationwide analysis nonprofit, tailored SCWO to focus on PFAS and spun off Revive as a non-public entity with funding from Viking International Buyers in January 2023. 

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