SEP 08, 2022 5:00 PM PDT

Boiling Away Forever Chemicals

WRITTEN BY: Hannah Daniel

Forever chemicals are in hot water.

In a paper published on August 18 in Science, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Northwestern University found a way to break down these forever chemicals using a few common reagents and hot water.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are large carbon structures surrounded by fluorine molecules. They’re incredibly robust and used for many commercial goods because of their non-stick and waterproof properties.

Their chemical structure also gives them their name, “forever chemicals,” because they are tough to break down. They can stick around in environments and our bodies for so long that they build up and become harmful. Due to the prevalence and danger of these chemicals, many research groups have published research about ways to break PFAS down, using microorganisms, electrons, even UV light, and other chemicals.

The Environmental Protection Agency released its three-year plan to regulate PFAS on October 18, 2021, a few months after Maine banned sales of forever chemicals.

Northwestern researchers studying PFAS took advantage of the reactive oxygen atoms at the head of some PFAS molecules and combined them with dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and sodium hydroxide (lye). Once the water was heated to a range of 176-248°F, the reagents snipped off the oxygen head of the PFAS molecules.

With the head of the structure done, the carbon-fluorine backbone started to unravel as well. Simulations done by the researchers at UCLA confirmed what the Northwestern researchers saw in the lab and that the only byproducts were fluoride, carbon dioxide, and formic acid—all non-toxic chemicals. 

The research team was able to break down ten types of perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids (PFCAs) and perfluoroalkyl ether carboxylic acids (PFECAs), and they believe this will work on similar classes of PFAS that contain carboxylic acids.

Sources: Science, UCLA

About the Author
BS Biology
Hannah Daniel (she/they) is a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, where she received a Bachelor of Science in Biology with an additional minor in Creative Writing. Currently, she works as a reporter for Informa Intelligence's Medtech Insight publication, a business newsletter detailing the latest innovations and regulations in the medical device industry.
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