New tool developed to assist in quest to eliminate PFAS

HOUGHTON — A new computational tool developed at Michigan Technological University assists in the urgent quest to eliminate the persistent chemicals known as PFAS from community water supplies. 

Because of their unique properties, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used everywhere in daily life — from water-repellent clothing and non-stick cookware to pizza boxes, ski wax, fast-food wrappers and fire-fighting foam.

“PFAS contain a very strong carbon-fluorine bond, not easily degraded by biological activities,” said Daisuke Minakata, an associate professor of civil, environmental, and geospatial engineering. “PFAS can remain in the environment almost forever, thus they are called ‘the forever chemicals.’ They end up contaminating our groundwater and surface water, our waterways, and eventually our drinking water and ecological systems, too, including freshwater fish.”

Chemical industries manufacture different properties of PFAS for specific commercial products; there are approximately 4,000-5,000 known types. While toxicological impacts are still largely unknown, PFAS are potentially carcinogenic, Minakata said. Small concentrations of PFAS have been found in human bloodstreams. As a result, the state of Michigan and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently began regulating the levels of several types of PFAS under the Safe Water Drinking Act.

Responding to the presence of PFAS creates unique challenges for communities in Michigan and elsewhere. “Some water authorities have already located the source of PFAS contamination in their drinking water,” Minakata said. “It’s a start. However, because of the budget constraints faced by many local governments, they simply cannot afford to employ advanced water treatment technologies to remove the PFAS.”

“Our new computational tools provide helpful guidance and methods to researchers around the world who seek to forever destroy these forever chemicals,” Minakata said.

Minakata and Michigan Tech graduate student Rose Daily, a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow in environmental engineering, used data science and computational chemistry to study hundreds of structurally diverse organic chemicals to predict PFAS reactivities. 

“Our methods can be expanded and used to screen thousands of PFAS,” says Minakata. “The key is understanding the reactivities of solvated electrons with organic chemicals and PFAS. With that knowledge, you can screen a great number of PFAS contaminants and prioritize them for the application of advanced reduction processes to degrade — and hopefully fully destroy PFAS.”

Next, collaborators plan to locate PFAS hotspots and deploy the technologies to destroy large amounts at one time.


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