New Process Discovered To Destroy Forever Chemicals Found In Water


Since the industrial age, man has made so many discoveries that have helped with making daily chores easier and quicker. However, what many didn’t realize was the fact that these scientists have also come across chemicals that do more harm than good to the environment.

The pollutants have been dubbed as ‘forever chemicals,” and for good reason too. These stay on land until they eventually seep through the soils and affect the many life forms that come across it. This is why people are scrambling right now to find the perfect solution to this problem.

More About These Chemicals

PFAS ( or what is otherwise referred to as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) talks about a group of manufactured chemicals that have been used by many since the 1940s. These are called ‘forever chemicals’ because they can’t be broken down easily, and if nothing will be done to these, it will stay in the environment forever. Bacteria can’t consume these, fire won’t be able to incinerate these, and worse, these also can’t be diluted in water. Others have attempted to bury these toxins underneath the soil only to discover that these only get absorbed by the soil surrounding the area.

However, the amazing chemists from Northwestern University have achieved what people once thought was impossible, or at least close to it. They utilized low temperatures and used inexpensive and easily available substances to create a process. The research team behind it was able to develop the method that allows the two major kinds of PFAS compounds to break down until what’s left of it is merely benign end products.

This is a rather simple technique but this has the ability to become a powerful solution to dispose the toxic chemicals that cause harm and bring about dangerous health effects to those who access the common water supply.

“PFAS has become a major societal problem,” Northwestern’s William Dichtel said. He lead the study and also said, “We wanted to use chemistry to address this problem and create a solution that the world can use. It’s exciting because of how simple — yet unrecognized — our solution is.”

PFAS have been by manufacturers for 70 years now as nonstick and waterproofing agents. These can be made with nonstick cookware, waterproof cosmetics, firefighting foams, water-repellent fabrics, and several products that repel commonly used items such as grease and oil.

In the years that have passed, PFAS have managed to seep through the ground and affect supplies for drinking water. While scientists have yet to fully comprehend and know the health effects, PFAS exposure has been linked to several health issues. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently made a declaration and said that PFAS count can become very risky even when these are at trace levels.

PFAS and Their Unbreakable Bonds 

Community efforts have been made so that they can filter PFAS from water supply, and while these have been fairly successful, they have yet to find more solutions in order to responsibly dispose of PFAS once these have been collected. The options that have come out, while few and far between, have basically required its destruction at high temperatures and pressures. There are also a few other solutions requiring big energy inputs.

PFAS has essentially been indestructible. That’s because of the chemical bonds found in it. It contains several carbon-fluorine bonds, which, in organic chemistry, have been known to be the strongest one there is. This is actually one of the many electronegative element written in the periodic table. This means that fluorine desperately looks for electrons to survive. Carbon, on the other hand, is actually more flexible when it comes to needing electrons.

Straight to the Chemical’s Achilles’ Heel

Dichtel and his team studied the compounds thoroughly, and in doing so, they found a weak spot. They discovered that PFAS contains a long tail of firm carbon-fluorine bonds. However, they found that at one end of the molecule, there is a charged group. This group oftentimes has charged oxygen atoms. This was shared by Brittany Trang. She worked in Dichtel’s laboratory as she performed a project for the doctoral thesis. She is also the paper’s co-first author.

What they did was target the solution in the area via heating the PFAS in a solution that contained dimethyl sulfoxide and sodium hydroxide. These are common household chemicals found in many items such as soap or painkillers. When they did this, they were able to cut off the head group, and as a result, breaking the bond as it leaves behind the others. This proved that they have definitely found the “Achilles’ heel.”

Many have made previous attempts to destroy PFAS. Some groups made use of high temperatures that go as high as 400 degrees Celsius. As for Dichtel and his team, they are looking forward to this new technique because it only requires the use of milder conditions and basic, cheap ingredients. This means that this can become more practical for everyone’s use.

After Dichtel and Trang came upon the PFAS degradation conditions, they also saw how the fluorinated pollutants fell apart in a more complex process than what they first thought. This means that they chemicals didn’t break down one carbon at a time. These actually let go of two or three carbons in one go. As soon as researchers can fully comprehend its pathways and methods, they saw that what remained were simply the benign products.

“This proved to be a very complex set of calculations that challenged the most modern quantum mechanical methods and fastest computers available to us,” said cKen Houk. He is a collaborator and a research professor in organic chemistry at UCLA.

The U.S. has been able to point out than 12,000 different PFAS compounds. This may seem overwhelming at first, but Dichtel is hopeful as he and his team are backed by the National Science Foundation. “Our work addressed one of the largest classes of PFAS, including many we are most concerned about,” shared Dichtel. “There are other classes that don’t have the same Achilles’ heel, but each one will have its own weakness. If we can identify it, then we know how to activate it to destroy it.”


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