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PFAS removal products have great market potential

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PFAS removal products have great market potential

PFAS removal products have great market potential

An industrial area in Grand Rapids, Michigan: The company Revive Environmental invites you to tour the company – and presents something unsavory from the laboratory: a plastic container with an aqueous concentrate that contains PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances). When shaken, the cloudy broth wafts back and forth like maple syrup. In the environment, however, the fluorochemicals are practically invisible. Most people only think about them briefly, for example when they appear in the headlines as “forever chemicals” or “poison of the century”. But unlike the ubiquitous plastic waste in the landscape, they are quickly forgotten.

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The PFAS group of substances includes thousands of chemical compounds. For decades they have been used as an aid in industry and for countless products: from pizza boxes to textiles, seals, refrigerants and firefighting foams to artificial heart valves. They accumulate in the environment and have long been found all over the world. Almost everyone has them in their bodies, especially children, often in dangerously high doses. Some PFAS have been proven to be harmful to health, but the vast majority have simply not been studied well enough. Possible consequences range from immune system disorders to cancer.

The idea of ​​removing the substances from soil and water and destroying them sounds good. Revive and more and more companies around the world are taking care of the final step, their destruction. They want to break the extremely stable carbon-fluorine bonds that form the backbone of fluorochemicals as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. The processes include some that have also been used to destroy chemical warfare agents. Some are already being tested in field trials, others in pilot plants, and many have so far only worked in the laboratory. It’s a billion-dollar market.

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Revive relies on a combination of pressure and heat that brings water into a so-called supercritical state, making it a particularly powerful oxidizer. “Our ‘PFAS Annihilator’ is essentially a PFAS pressure cooker that heats the contaminated liquid to over 500 degrees Celsius and compresses it to around 220 bar,” says CEO David Trueba.

Other companies and research groups also use catalysts, such as Aquagga in Washington, or plasma arcs – a process that the US company Onvector is currently testing on a military base in Massachusetts. UV light is also being tested as a PFAS destroying agent – and ultrasound via so-called sonolysis. Ultrasonic waves produce steam-filled bubbles in contaminated liquids, which become larger and larger and eventually collapse. This creates local temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Celsius: a death sentence for the problematic chemicals. In 2022, researchers from California reported in the Journals of Environmental Engineering about field tests with degradation rates of up to 99 percent.

The current method of choice is thermal decomposition in suitable waste incineration plants. However, it requires a lot of transport effort, temperatures over 1000 degrees Celsius and complex exhaust gas treatment. Ideally, only carbon dioxide and harmless sulfate and fluoride salts remain of the PFAS.

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The developers expect two main advantages from the new methods: In the future, they could be used directly at the site of damage – for example in the case of landfill leaks – and they may be more cost-effective than transport and incineration. However, it is not certain whether the hopes will be fulfilled. Among other things, it is still unclear which of the numerous PFAS compounds would be reliably destroyed using which process, says Michael Reinhard from Arcadis in Darmstadt. If degradation is incomplete, even more harmful substances could be produced. “The danger exists primarily in the oxidation processes and can only be minimized through optimized process conditions, which is very complex.”

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Neither process solves the biggest problem: Before the compounds can be destroyed, they usually first have to be removed from water and soil. This is already being done in particularly polluted areas. The main standard technologies used are activated carbon filters, ion exchangers, osmosis filters and PFAS enrichment in foams produced with ozone. “The technologies are available, but where entire areas of the country are affected, it is hardly possible to get them out,” emphasizes Reinhard. It is urgently necessary to find alternatives for processes and products containing PFAS so that the substances do not end up in the environment in the first place. With this goal in mind, the EU – as a global pioneer – presented a proposal to ban the entire PFAS family a year ago.

Of the producers, only 3M has so far pulled the ripcord. The announcement that it will exit the fluorochemicals business by 2025 is also making waves in Germany, because the company is an important employer in the Bavarian Gendorf industrial park. The state government is still fighting to preserve the site – despite the known risks. The region’s groundwater has been poisoned for decades and the industrial park is still emitting problematic PFAS into the environment.

According to Reinhard, the fact that some state officials are not aware of the explosiveness of the problem is also evident elsewhere. For example, it is legally stipulated that authorities must create land registers for suspected cases, update them regularly and investigate each suspicion through selective investigations. But implementation is handled very differently locally, probably also because it involves investments. “The topic of finding as many contaminated areas as possible is simply not particularly sexy. You can’t win an election with it either. But sitting it out isn’t a solution either,” said the expert.

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The conductivity values ​​for soils and drinking water supplies have been reduced internationally several times and by several orders of magnitude in recent years. For this reason alone, the number of places where PFAS must be removed will continue to grow. The PFAS collection and destruction industry will not run out of work any time soon. Especially since it is unclear when and how the planned EU regulation will take effect – not to mention global requirements. Meanwhile, the problem is getting bigger and bigger. “PFAS have been released largely unregulated for about 70 years,” says Philip Simon of Ann Arbor Technical Services, an environmental consulting firm in the US state of Michigan. “If you think that DDT and other chlorinated pesticides, and later PCBs (carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls), provide any foreshadowing of what we’re dealing with, forget it. It’s much more complicated than that.”

(Older brother)

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