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Researchers Receive Funding to Build a System that Selectively Removes and Destroys PFAS

The National Alliance for Water Innovation of the US Department of Energy has given engineers at the University of Illinois Chicago just over $1 million to develop a system that selectively eliminates and destroys poly- and perfluorinated substances, also known as PFAS and referred to as “forever chemicals,” from industrial and municipal wastewaters.

Researchers Receive Funding to Build a System that Selectively Removes and Destroys PFAS.
Water Glass Drops Drink Clear Blue. Image Credit: Pixabay

The money will fund the team’s work for three years. PFAS are man-made chemicals that are present in many everyday items.

Fertilizers, commercial items that end up in landfills, and PFAS from their ubiquitous use in industrial settings infiltrate into the groundwater and drinking water supplies. Unfortunately, these pervasive “forever chemicals” are connected to adverse health effects in both people and animals and do not degrade in the body.

Evidence demonstrates that the chemicals can cause high cholesterol, cancer, and have an impact on the thyroid, immune system, and reproductive system at low concentrations.

The UIC team, headed by professor of chemical engineering Brian Chaplin, will create a prototype of their system before deploying it for scale-up and pilot testing in California’s Orange County Water District at the end of the three-year financing period.

The utility is spending money on new equipment since the area has repeated droughts, which makes it necessary to recycle water and fill aquifers to boost the county’s poor drinking water supply.

Chaplin’s system works through a treatment process known as reactive electrochemical membrane filtration. Adsorbents and catalysts on the membrane catch and eliminate PFAS as the water moves through the REM system.

The UIC team will create, screen, characterize, and optimize effective electrocatalysts with the funds to make the system successful at eliminating and, particularly, destroying PFAS at elevated levels with little energy usage. To compare and determine best practices for implementing the technology at a broad scale in useful, real-world applications, they will also examine other systems.

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.

Brian Chaplin, Professor, Chemical Engineering, University of Illinois Chicago

Brian Chaplin adds, “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 nontraditional water streams.”

In less than two minutes of contact time and with a conversion rate of fewer than 10 kilowatt-hours per cubic meter, which is an order of magnitude lower than existing destructive technologies, Chaplin intends to operationalize the system for successful destructive removal of PFAS.

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.

Brian Chaplin, Professor, Chemical Engineering, University of Illinois Chicago

Sangil Kim, an associate professor of chemical engineering, Ahmed Abokifa, an assistant professor of civil, materials, and environmental engineering, as well as researchers from Purdue University, Argonne National Laboratory, and other industrial partners who also received funding for the project, are all working on the project with Chaplin.

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