Million-dollar grant to investigate treatment of PFAS-contaminated water

UNSW Engineering researchers Associate Professor Denis O’Carroll, Professor Michael Manefield and Dr. Matthew Lee, along with UNSW Professor Naresh Kumar and University of Georgia Professor Qingguo Huang, have recently received $1.4 million in joint Australia Research Council and industry funding to develop a new treatment technology to treat water contaminated with Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).Dennis O'Carroll in laboratory

Since the 1950s, PFAS have been used for a range of consumer and industrial applications, including in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which is used for fire suppression. The PFAS class of chemicals has rapidly become one of the biggest emerging contaminants of concern worldwide due to the extremely low concentrations of regulator concern and its prevalence in drinking water sources around the world.

In Australia, PFAS has received considerable media attention, featuring in numerous front-page news articles and television programs due to subsurface contamination emanating from a number of military installations—such as in Williamtown, Oakey, Tindal—and in fire training areas such as Fiskville.

PFAS are synthetic fluorinated chemicals that are highly resistant to environmental degradation, very mobile in the environment and are screened at extremely low drinking water concentrations.

A recent study suggests that approximately six million people in the United States were served by drinking water supplies where at least some of the water source had PFAS levels that exceeded regulatory limits. Given that PFAS is pervasive in the environment, they have been quantified at measurable levels in serum since the 1960s, with approximately 97% of participants in a 2011-2012 United States study having measurable serum PFAS levels.

Unfortunately, most existing water treatment technologies are unable to remove PFAS to the desired extent. Treatment technologies that are capable of removing PFAS effectively are prohibitively expensive or are only useful for a very limited lifespan. Additionally, these treatment technologies only serve to concentrate the contaminant.

The ARC grant will enable water treatment technologies to be trialled extensively in two to three years, helping to ultimately identify a treatment that is effective, sustainable, non-harmful and economically accessible.


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