JUL 07, 2020 7:21 AM PDT

Common mineral found to destroy forever chemicals in contaminated water

You have probably heard the recent concerns about PFAS, otherwise known as per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) or forever chemicals because they have been dubbed with the ominous trait of never degrading. A group of man-made chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s, PFAS are in many products like cookware, food packaging, and stain repellents. They have been linked to many adverse health effects including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and cancer. It has also been shown that PFAS may be released into the air, soil, and water, including sources of drinking water. Yikes!

Yet despite this huge sounding alarm, the scientific community is lacking effective ways to treat water that would decontaminate water sources from the presence of PFAS. Now chemical engineers from Rice University have discovered a catalyst - boron nitride - that is capable of degrading PFAS. Their discovery came as a surprise, even to them. 

"It was the control," said Rice Professor Michael Wong, referring to the control group of the experiment - not a place that typically yields unexpected results. "We tried a lot of things," said Wong, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering. "We tried several materials that I thought were going to work. None of them did. This wasn't supposed to work, and it did."

The light-activated catalyst they discovered is boron nitride (BN),  a synthetic mineral that's common in makeup, skincare products, and thermal pastes that cool computer chips, among other products. And it's that light activation that makes this finding both so unexpected and effective. 

"Here's the observation," Wong said. "You take a flask of water that contains some PFOA, you throw in your BN powder, and you seal it up. That's it. You don't need to add any hydrogen or purge it with oxygen. It's just the air we breathe, the contaminated water and the BN powder. You expose that to ultraviolet light, specifically to UV-C light with a wavelength of 254 nanometers, come back in four hours, and 99% of the PFOA has been transformed into fluoride, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen. If you take away the light, you don't get catalysis," Wong said. "If you leave out the BN powder and only use the light, you don't get a reaction."

The researchers also tried out their catalyst on another forever chemical known as GenX. While not quite as effective as the results on PFOA, BN was able to destroy roughly 20% of the GenX in water after two hours of exposure to UV light. 

Photo: Pixabay

The team remains excited about their findings and plans to collaborate with industries to commercialize the catalyst. There’s a lot of potential, says Wong. "We haven't yet tested this at a full scale, but in our benchtop tests in the lab, we could get rid of 99% of PFOA in four hours." 

This study was published online in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters. 

Sources: Environmental Science and Technology Letters, Science Daily

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
You May Also Like
OCT 09, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Plastic-Eating Cocktail Could Help Establish Infinite Recycling
OCT 09, 2020
Plastic-Eating Cocktail Could Help Establish Infinite Recycling
There's no doubt that the current recycling system isn't efficient enough in handling the plastic wastes our soc ...
OCT 10, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Imagining the sunspots of other solar systems
OCT 10, 2020
Imagining the sunspots of other solar systems
A recent study published in the Astrophysical Journal takes a new look at sunspots in order to understand stellar activi ...
DEC 02, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
New sensor detects hydrogen using light instead of heat
DEC 02, 2020
New sensor detects hydrogen using light instead of heat
A new hydrogen sensor has been developed by researchers at RMIT University in Australia using light instead of heat. The ...
DEC 27, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
Using Antibodies & Oligonucleotides to Control Specific Reactions
DEC 27, 2020
Using Antibodies & Oligonucleotides to Control Specific Reactions
Antibodies are naturally used by the body to bind targets on pathogens and neutralize them, and these specific interacti ...
JAN 10, 2021
Chemistry & Physics
Documenting biological magnetoreception in living cells
JAN 10, 2021
Documenting biological magnetoreception in living cells
New research published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from a team of scientists fr ...
JAN 12, 2021
Chemistry & Physics
Newly discovered quasar sheds light on the early Universe
JAN 12, 2021
Newly discovered quasar sheds light on the early Universe
What exactly is a quasar? Astronomers define quasars as huge active galactic nuclei that house supermassive black holes ...
Loading Comments...