Making PFAS-contaminated water safe for people to drink
UNC-Chapel Hill research project creates an affordable resin that uses ionic fluorogels to absorb PFAS contaminants. This groundbreaking technology seeks to impact public health by transforming water contaminated with PFAS into water that is safer for human use.
Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are manmade chemicals that have been manufactured in many industries around the world since the 1940’s. Areas most affected by PFAS levels are fluoropolymer production sites, firefighting training areas and wastewater treatment plants. These chemicals are also found in food packaging, Teflon, and stain-resistant fabrics and plastics. Because of their inability to break down, PFAS accumulate in the environment and human body over time. Drinking water contaminated by PFAS impacts hundreds of millions of people worldwide, adversely affects human health, and poses risks to the immune, metabolic, and endocrine systems. Conventional and advanced water treatment processes often cannot effectively remove PFAS. And given its drastic effect on public health, there is a dire need for technology that can eliminate PFAS contamination.
UNC-Chapel Hill’s Frank A. Leibfarth, PhD, an assistant professor of chemistry, and Orlando Coronell, PhD, an associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School of Global Public health, are working on a research project to create an Ionic Fluorogel (IF) resin that adsorbs PFAS from water sources. The technology they are creating is novel, chemically stable, scalable and economically viable. Using a resin that was specifically made for PFAS molecules, the technology mimics PFAS by including a key element: fluorine. Charged ions capture the PFAS molecules and filters them out of the water by adsorption to the resin.
Leibfarth and Coronell have tested a total of 21 types of PFAS commonly found in North Carolina in their lab. Approximately 85 percent of the PFAS were successfully removed from water, including 100 percent of PFOA and PFOS, which are known carcinogens. That’s about four times more PFAS removal than the current best commercial technology. Upon completion of the PFAS project, this technology may be used in municipal water treatment plants as well as home systems. Such applications can improve water quality and limit adverse health effects for many.