Common, cheap ingredients can break down some ‘forever chemicals’

There’s a new way to rip apart harmful “forever chemicals,” scientists say.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are found in nonstick pans, water-repellent fabrics and food packaging and they are pervasive throughout the environment. They’re nicknamed forever chemicals for their ability to stick around and not break down. In part, that’s because PFAS have a super strong bond between their carbon and fluorine atoms (SN: 6/4/19). Now, using a bit of heat and two relatively common compounds, researchers have degraded one major type of forever chemical in the lab, the team reports in the Aug. 19 Science. The work could help pave the way for a process for breaking down certain forever chemicals commercially, for instance by treating wastewater.

“The fundamental knowledge of how the materials degrade is the single most important thing coming out of this study,” organic chemist William Dichtel said in an August 16 news conference.

While some scientists have found relatively simple ways of breaking down select PFAS, most degradation methods require harsh, energy-intensive processes using intense pressure — in some cases over 22 megapascals — or extremely high temperatures — sometimes upwards of 1000⁰ Celsius — to break the chemical bonds (SN: 6/3/22).

Dichtel, of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and his team experimented with two substances found in nearly every chemistry lab cabinet: sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, and a solvent called dimethyl sulfoxide, or DMSO. The team worked specifically with a group of forever chemicals called PFCAs, which contain carboxylic acid and constitute a large percentage of all PFAS. Some of these kinds of forever chemicals are found in water-resistant clothes.

When the team combined PFCAs with the lye and DMSO at 120⁰ C and with no extra pressure needed, the carboxylic acid fell off the chemical and became carbon dioxide in a process called decarboxylation. What happened next was unexpected, Dichtel said. Loss of the acid led to a process causing “the entire molecule to fall apart in a cascade of complex reactions.” This cascade involved steps that degraded the rest of the chemical into fluoride ions and smaller carbon-containing products, leaving behind virtually no harmful by-products. .

“It’s a neat method, it’s different from other ones that have been tried,” says Chris Sales, an environmental engineer at Drexel University in Philadelphia who was not involved in the study. “The biggest question is, how could this be adapted and scaled up?” Northwestern has filed a provisional patent on behalf of the researchers.

Understanding this mechanism is just one step in undoing forever chemicals, Dichtel’s team said. And more research is needed: There are other classes of PFAS that require their own solutions. This process wouldn’t work to tackle PFAS out in the environment, because it requires a concentrated amount of the chemicals. But it could one day be used in wastewater treatment plants, where the pollutants could be filtered out of the water, concentrated and then broken down.

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