MSU aiming for ‘total destruction’ of PFAS with new plasma technology

Researchers looking for solutions to the country’s perennial chemical problems have set their sights on a bold goal: Total destruction.

A Michigan State University physics professor is researching ways to use plasma — a fourth state of matter made up of ions and electrons — to “permanently destroy” PFAS, as he puts it. Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances are among the most persistent pollutants in the world.

The science behind the process is in its early stages of development. But Dr. Chi Hua Fan, project director who leads the PFAS Research Laboratory at MSU, says the new technology has the ability to completely eliminate the substance without generating the waste that typically follows other treatment efforts.

“There will never be a single solution. (Plasma) will also be part of a larger system,” Fan said. “But it’s really cost effective. It’s very simple.”

There may be only a few steps when it comes to using plasma to remove PFAS, but the science surrounding the method can quickly get complicated.

Although PFAS has been found around the world, removing it continues to stump scientists. Even the EPA says researchers still don’t understand the best way to detect and remove it from the environment. This includes removing it from drinking water, air, soil and people.

Of the 2,854 locations where PFAS has been found, approximately 200 of them are in Michigan — one of the highest concentrations in the country.

Standing in the way of most efforts to remove PFAS from the environment is the chemical bond that makes up the contaminant. He is incredibly healthy. Most methods researchers use when removing PFAS struggle to break the bond.

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The most common methods involve removing the contaminant with a filter or purifying the water. But these systems are inefficient, Fan says. They also create wastewater that still has highly concentrated levels of PFAS in it, which ends up being stored in landfills and other industrial sites. There, they further pollute the nearby environment as leachate—the rainwater that mixes with buried waste before draining into the ground.

Now, with the help of a $690,000 grant through the Great Lakes Conservation Fund, Phan hopes to test a new plasma technology. Not only is it able to completely destroy PFAS, but it does so faster than conventional methods and with less waste.

The secret is in the extremely high temperatures.

A fan has already tested the new method against older techniques. It’s called MEAP (magnetically enhanced arc plasma) and involves an atmospheric plasma in which the electron temperature is ~30,000 degrees Celsius. Beneath the plasma is PFAS-contaminated water. While concentrated, the PFAS is then transported by gas into the plasma, which is hot enough to break the bonds.

Magnetically Enhanced Arc Plasma uses a plasma vortex that covers a wide area of ​​the water surface. The gas bubbles transport the PFAS in the water into the plasma, where they break it down. Graphic courtesy of Dr. Qi Hua Fan.

“These electrons can break down PFAS,” Fan said.

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The technology has a downside. It requires a lot of energy to power up. And previous techniques using plasma have led to the creation of shorter strains of PFAS.

Fenn says the hope is that the technology can be adopted everywhere. It has the capacity to treat thousands of gallons of contaminated water every day, making it an effective waste water management.

“This is a perfect example of how (technology) can have a positive impact on society in other industries,” said Russell Zaras, lead business developer at Fraunhofer, a research and development firm that is partnering with MSU on the project.

Fan, MSU and Fraunhofer envision both waste management companies and cities dealing with human wastewater using the technology.

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