U.S – Scientists from the University of Rochester have unveiled a novel technique capable of removing the notorious “forever chemicals” from water.

This innovation, spearheaded by Assistant Professor Astrid Müller, employs laser-made nanomaterials crafted from nonprecious metals, challenging the grim reality of pollutants that have long been considered indomitable.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have infiltrated every corner of our planet, from the depths of the oceans to the peaks of mountains, and even into the bloodstream of wildlife and humans alike.

Used in everything from non-stick pans to firefighting foams, their durability is both a boon and a curse. While their resistance to heat, water, and oil has made them invaluable in various industries, it also means they do not break down in the natural environment, leading to widespread contamination and concerns over potential health effects.

The team’s research, detailed in the Journal of Catalysis, zeroes in on a particularly pervasive type of PFAS: Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).

Despite a global phase-out due to its environmental persistence and potential health risks, PFOS continues to haunt water supplies worldwide.

Müller’s team, through their innovative approach, has not only challenged PFOS’s notorious resilience but also offered a beacon of hope for the remediation of contaminated water sources.

Power of laser-made nanocatalysts

At the heart of Müller’s method is the use of pulsed laser in liquid synthesis to create nanocatalysts. This cutting-edge technique allows unprecedented control over the surface chemistry of these catalysts, facilitating the complete defluorination of PFOS chemicals.

By adhering these nanoparticles to hydrophilic carbon paper and employing lithium hydroxide at high concentrations, the researchers achieved what many thought impossible: breaking down the indestructible.

The implications of this discovery are vast. The method’s reliance on nonprecious metals not only makes it a financially viable option for widespread application but also represents a nearly 100-fold cost reduction compared to existing treatments that require boron-doped diamond.

Treating a cubic meter of polluted water, which would previously have cost an astounding U.S$8.5 million, is now within reach.

But Müller’s ambitions extend beyond PFOS. She envisions applying this method to a broad spectrum of PFAS chemicals, many of which are still in use despite their links to health issues ranging from developmental delays in infants to kidney cancer.

Moreover, Müller argues against a total ban on PFAS, highlighting their critical role in consumer products and green technologies alike.

“From geothermal heat pumps to solar cells, the decarbonization of our economy may well depend on the sustainable use of PFAS,” she says.

“This research not only represents a significant step forward in the fight against environmental pollution but also embodies a shift towards a more circular economy, where even the most stubborn pollutants can be safely and efficiently recycled.”

While commercialization may still be on the horizon, the filing of a patent with support from URVentures signals the beginning of a new era in environmental remediation.

Müller anticipates that their invention will be used to clean up contaminated areas where these PFAS chemicals were once produced, as well as at wastewater treatment plants.

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