Is The End Coming For Forever Chemicals?

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In what could be a huge step forward for environmental clean-ups, a team of researchers from the University of Washington has created a new technique for destroying so-called ‘forever chemicals’.

What Are Forever Chemicals?

‘Forever chemicals’ refers to molecules / chemical compounds that are found in many different consumer, commercial, and industrial products and encountered in our everyday lives, e.g. food packaging and household cleaning goods. These chemicals, however, persist in water, air, soil plus animals such as fish and are known to be able to cause health problems such as cancer or fertility issues. The fact that these don’t degrade and simply circulate in our water and food is why they are known as ‘forever chemicals.’ For example, Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) that are referred to as forever chemicals. 

New technique for destroying both PFOA and PFOS

The exciting news is that researchers from the University of Washington have created a new technique that completely breaks down PFOA and PFOS using “supercritical water,” which is formed at high temperatures and pressure. The method, which happens within a ‘reactor’ made from thick stainless-steel pipe works by heating water pressure so that it doesn’t turn to steam. Instead, it reaches a different state of matter, called the ‘supercritical phase’. In this phase, where it is neither a liquid or a gas, the water molecules become like ionized particles, bouncing around at high temperatures and high speeds. This enables them to break down PFOS and PFOA leaving only harmless substances, such as carbon dioxide, water, and fluoride salts. 

Real World Applications

Although the researchers are still at the stage of testing how the reactor process could destroy other forever chemicals, and assessing how well the technology could work for real-world scenarios, there is speculation that this new method of destroying forever chemicals could: 

– Help improve the effectiveness of treating industrial waste, thereby cutting the amount of forever chemicals being released into (and damaging) the environment. 

– Destroy many of the concentrated forever chemicals currently present in the environment, thereby preserving plant and animal life. 

– Dispose of old stocks, such as the forever chemicals in fire-fighting foam, thereby reducing the risk of further pollution and improving safety. 

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation?

How to effectively and completely break down damaging forever chemicals, at scale, and in a low-cost way has been a major challenge. This new method, which appears to be highly effective and essentially just uses water and breaks down the chemicals to totally harmless substances is extremely promising both from human health and broader environmental perspectives. Using this method, industrial waste could be cleaned-up before it comes into contact with the environment, dramatically reducing the amount of dangerous long-term pollutants entering the food chain, and helping to make those industries cleaner. The hope is also that this method, as is being tested at the moment, will also work for other real-world scenarios.