New polymer tackles PFAS pollution

Powdered Activated Carbon polymer
Magnified view of the Powdered Activated Carbon polymer which bonds with water-borne PFAS, enabling its removal from the environment. Credit: Flinders University

The problem of cleaning up toxic polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) pollution—commonly used in non-stick and protective coatings, lubricants and aviation fire-fighting foams—has been solved through the discovery of a new low-cost, safe and environmentally friendly method that removes PFAS from water.

In The US, contamination by PFAS and other so-called “forever chemicals” has been detected in foods including grocery store meats and seafood by FDA tests, prompting calls for regulations to be applied to manmade compounds. Consistent associations between very high levels of the industrial compounds in peoples’ blood and health risks have been reported but insufficient evidence has been presented to prove the compounds as the cause.

In Australia, PFAS pollution—which does not break down readily in the environment—has been a hot news item due to the extensive historical use of fire-fighting foams containing PFAS at airports and defense sites, resulting in contaminated groundwater and surface water being reported in these areas.

Researchers from the Flinders University Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology have—on World Environment Day—revealed a new type of absorbent polymer, made from waste cooking oil and sulfur combined with powdered activated carbon (PAC).

While there have been few economic solutions for removing PFAS from contaminated water, the new polymer adheres to carbon in a way that prevents caking during water filtration. It works faster at PFAS uptake than the commonly used and more expensive granular activated carbon method, and it dramatically lowers the amount of dust generated during handling PAC that lowers respiratory risks faced by clean-up workers.

“We need safe, low-cost and versatile methods for removing PFAS from water, and our polymer-carbon blend is a promising step in this direction,” says Flinders University’s Dr. Justin Chalker, co-director of the study. “The next stage for us is to test this sorbent on a commercial scale and demonstrate its ability to purify thousands of liters of water. We are also investigating methods to recycle the sorbent and destroy the PFAS.”

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