Scientists develop water treatment solution for eradicating forever chemicals

UBC’s innovative water treatment technology could also eliminate pharmaceutical residues and microplastics.
Kavita Verma
UBC's PFAS removal breakthrough.
UBC's PFAS removal breakthrough.

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The University of British Columbia (UBC) has made a significant breakthrough in water treatment technology by developing an innovative method for removing per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as 'forever chemicals,' from water sources. These harmful chemicals are found in various consumer products and firefighting foams, posing considerable environmental and health risks.

PFAS explained

PFAS are synthetic chemicals that have been widely used since the 1940s in products such as non-stick cookware, stain repellents, and firefighting foams. Due to their persistent nature and resistance to breaking down, these chemicals accumulate in the environment and enter our water sources, leading to long-term health risks, including cancer, hormonal imbalances, and weakened immune systems.

UBC's pioneering water treatment technology targets and neutralizes PFAS, providing a promising solution to the global challenge of PFAS contamination. This cutting-edge approach has the potential to transform water treatment methods, ensuring cleaner and safer water sources for generations to come.

Effective use of electrochemical oxidation

Traditional water treatment methods have proven ineffective at removing PFAS from water sources, as these chemicals are extremely stable and resistant to breaking down. UBC's new method uses a process called electrochemical oxidation to break down PFAS, rendering them harmless. The technique involves applying an electric current to the water, which generates highly reactive hydroxyl radicals that effectively oxidize and neutralize PFAS molecules.

This novel water treatment solution has shown promising results in lab tests, successfully removing up to 99.9% of PFAS from water samples. The researchers are now working on scaling up the technology for real-world applications, with the hope of making it available for widespread use in the near future.

Dr. Mohammad Arjmand, an assistant professor in UBC's School of Engineering, emphasized the significance of this breakthrough, stating that the technology is "a thousand times better" than conventional filtration methods such as activated carbon filters. He further explained that the UBC-developed method is more efficient, faster, and cost-effective than existing solutions for PFAS removal.

Helpful in removing other contaminants too

In addition to addressing PFAS contamination, UBC's innovative water treatment technology could also help eliminate other harmful contaminants from water sources, such as pharmaceutical residues and microplastics, paving the way for a cleaner and healthier future.

As concerns grow over the long-term effects of PFAS exposure, UBC's groundbreaking water treatment solution comes at a critical time. The technology offers hope for a more sustainable future, safeguarding our water sources from the harmful effects of forever chemicals and other contaminants.

By tackling the persistent issue of PFAS contamination, UBC researchers demonstrate their commitment to addressing environmental concerns and promoting a healthier, more sustainable world. With further development and implementation, this revolutionary technology has the potential to significantly impact global water treatment methods, ensuring access to cleaner, safer water for all.

The study was published in Chemosphere.

Study abstract:

This study investigates an electrochemical approach for the treatment of water polluted with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), looking at the impact of different variables, contributions from generated radicals, and degradability of different structures of PFAS. Results obtained from a central composite design (CCD) showed the importance of mass transfer, related to the stirring speed, and the amount of charge passed through the electrodes, related to the current density on decomposition rate of PFOA. The CCD informed optimized operating conditions which we then used to study the impact of solution conditions. Acidic condition, high temperature, and low initial concentration of PFOA accelerated the degradation kinetic, while DO had a negligible effect. The impact of electrolyte concentration depended on the initial concentration of PFOA. At low initial PFOA dosage (0.2 mg L−1), the rate constant increased considerably from 0.079 ± 0.001 to 0.259 ± 0.019 min−1 when sulfate increased from 0.1% to 10%, likely due to the production of SO4•–. However, at higher initial PFOA dosage (20 mg L−1), the rate constant decreased slightly from 0.019 ± 0.001 to 0.015 ± 0.000 min−1, possibly due to the occupation of active anode sites by excess amount of sulfate. SO4•– and •OH played important roles in decomposition and defluorination of PFOA, respectively. PFOA oxidation was initiated by one electron transfer to the anode or SO4•–, undergoing Kolbe decarboxylation where yielded perfluoroalkyl radical followed three reaction pathways with •OH, O2 and/or H2O. PFAS electrooxidation depended on the chemical structures where the decomposition rate constants (min−1) were in the order of 6:2 FTCA (0.031) > PFOA (0.019) > GenX (0.013) > PFBA (0.008). PFBA with a shorter chain length and GenX with –CF3 branching had slower decomposition than PFOA. While presence of C–H bonds makes 6:2 FTCA susceptible to the attack of •OH accelerating its decomposition kinetic. Conducting experiments in mixed solution of all studied PFAS and in natural water showed that the co-presence of PFAS and other water constituents (organic and inorganic matters) had adverse effects on PFAS decomposition efficiency.

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