You may have seen reports recently about the number of ‘forever chemicals’ in the world’s water supply. Even in the normally non-dramatic scientific world, we have seen headlines such as ‘Rainwater unsafe to drink due to chemicals’ following research undertaken recently by scientists at Stockholm University.
‘Forever chemicals’, or to use their scientific name, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), dissipate extremely slowly. They are synthetic substances that are used in non-stick pans, water-repellent clothing and fire-fighting foam. They’ve been found in groundwater and drinking water supplies around the globe, and the levels of chemicals in much of the world’s rainwater "greatly exceed” safety levels.
PFAS don’t break down in the body, and once ingested, they will accumulate. They have been linked to health conditions such as high cholesterol and cancer. They can also affect the reproductive system, the immune system and the thyroid, and they can cause developmental delays in children.
The encouraging news is that, since the early 2000s when scientists first became aware of the dangers caused by the toxicity of PFAS, global levels have remained the same and the levels found in people have fallen. However, there is a consensus that there is nothing to be done and those ‘forever chemicals’ will be here forever.
A team of engineers at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) has just received over a million dollars in funding from the US Department of Energy’s National Alliance for Water Innovation to develop a solution to the problem. Over the next three years, the team will use the funding to develop and test prototype technology that will remove and destroy PFAS from industrial and municipal wastewater. At the end of the three years, they aim to scale up the system and do pilot testing in California’s Orange County Water District.
The system works by treating water with reactive electrochemical membrane (REM) filtration. As the water passes through the REM system, the PFAS will be caught and destroyed by adsorbents and catalysts. The technology is currently being tested under controlled conditions, but the team’s aim is to optimise the process to destroy high levels of the PFAS in the environment. They are also developing it for use with low energy consumption.
The project is being led by Brian Chaplin, professor of chemical engineering at UIC. He said: “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.” He added, “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.”
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