Frying pan’s ‘permanent chemicals’… Find an easy way to disassemble

PFAS is widely used in fire-fighting foams, waterproofing suits, and cookware such as non-stick frying pans. [사진=게티이미지뱅크]
A method has been developed to more easily decompose perfluorinated compounds (PFAS), which are called ‘permanent chemicals’. Based on a paper by Northwestern University researchers published in Science on the 18th (local time), the scientific journal Nature reported.

PFAS is widely used in fire-fighting foams, waterproofing suits, and cookware such as non-stick frying pans. It does not decompose in the normal environment, giving it the nickname ‘permanent chemical’. It accumulates in soil and water, and once eaten, it continues to accumulate in the body. A 2015 study found PFAS in the blood of 97% of Americans, pointing out that it is a risk factor for thyroid disease, high cholesterol and cancer.

“These chemicals were originally designed to be stable. Once you get into the environment, the advantage becomes the defect.” Professor Shira Judan (environmental chemistry) at York University in Canada explains. PFAS can be removed from water, but it is very difficult. Buried in landfills can seep into the environment and contaminate soil and groundwater.

The existing PFAS treatment method was a high-end, high-cost technology that required high temperature and high pressure over 1000°C. To make matters worse, Dr. Brittany Trang (environmental chemist), who led the development of a new treatment technology, warned that burning products containing PFAS could cause the substance to spread into the environment.

Researchers at Northwestern University, led by Dr. Trang, have shown an inexpensive reagent and the potential to degrade one of the largest PFAS groups at temperatures of around 100°C. Professor Zhu Dan, who was not involved in the study, was excited about this approach, saying, “It is the first time I have encountered a treatment method that is different from the actual (existing method).”

PFAS consists of carbon-fluorine bonds. It is one of the strongest chemical bonds in nature. Rather than break the bonds of this stable molecular structure, Dr. Trang and his colleagues targeted a chemical group containing oxygen atoms that make up part of it.

The researchers showed that chemical groups containing oxygen atoms can be removed by heating PFAS in a solvent commonly found in soaps and detergents and a solvent called dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO). This ultimately triggers a series of reactions that break down PFAS into harmless products. Using this approach, the researchers succeeded in breaking down 10 types of PFAS and one of its common alternatives.

More than 12,000 species of PFAS have been identified so far. Among them, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) have strong potential toxicity and have been banned in most countries. Existing processing technology can also decompose both PFOA and PFOS. However, the technology developed by Northwestern University can decompose up to PFOA, but not PFOS, pointed out Ian Ross, head of PFAS consulting at Tetratech, an American engineer company. He also pointed out the limitations of using DMSO as a solvent for waste treatment, which can be impractical because the treatment cost is too high.

The researchers hoped that the approach they developed would help develop other treatments. “Anyone who studies the degradation of PFAS will be able to see this and better understand what’s going on,” said William Dicktel, a chemist at Northwestern University, who leads the study. We can help,” he said.

The paper can be found at the following link (https://www.science.org/doi/0.1126/science.abm8868).

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