Wiping Out ‘Forever Chemicals’ for Good

PFAS, a class of chemical compounds, are dangerous and everywhere. Could nanotech and microbes be the keys to removing them?

Zoom image: Image of skull and crossbones with chemical compounds Image of skull and crossbones with chemical compounds.

They’re called “forever chemicals.” Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used in a wide range of products, such as firefighting foams, fabrics, nonstick cooking surfaces, food packaging and more. Not only are they toxic to humans and wildlife; they’re nearly impossible to clean up. And they’re piling up in our rivers, lakes and even drinking water supplies.

In a new project funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers from the University at Buffalo and the University of Pittsburgh are teaming up to design the approaches and tools that would efficiently destroy forever chemicals. The group will seek to develop cutting-edge nanomaterials that react with and break down PFAS as well as to identify and isolate bacteria capable of consuming the sliced-up toxins.

Breaking down the breakdown

What makes the project compelling is that the team will use an analytical process called mass spectrometry as well as computer modeling to understand what happens at each step of the process, says principal investigator Diana Aga, Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences and director of UB’s RENEW Institute. By understanding the degradation process better, researchers can develop a more efficient system.

“We want to understand the mechanism of degradation,” Aga explains. “Sometimes when these chemicals degrade, they get cut into two pieces, but these pieces are now more toxic or problematic. So yes, you got rid of Chemical A, but then you’ve produced B and C. In our research, we will know what the byproducts are, and how the PFAS are interacting with the nanomaterials and microbes.”

This study complements earlier work Aga had done examining the buildup of chemicals like DDT in Great Lakes terns, and will happen concurrently with another study on PFAS that she is heading, that one funded by the National Science Foundation. For Aga, who remembers eating fish from the river near the small Philippine village where she grew up, and then watching the river turn black with pollution, the work of cleaning up these durable chemicals is particularly urgent. “My research is inspired by my desire to prevent the continuous deterioration of our environment as a result of industrialization and population growth,” she says.

How it all comes together

Any working system is still years away, but the team is excited to attack the PFAS problem using an interdisciplinary approach.

One UB engineering lab will develop high-tech nanomaterials that can degrade PFAS, and another will identify microbial communities to try and break down PFAS components and identify how they function. Aga and her students will perform chemical analysis to check how the system is working, and the lab at Pitt will use computational modeling to identify what enzymes are responsible for PFAS biodegradation and to understand how degradation is occurring.

Together, their research will move toward optimizing nanoparticles and high-performing microbes that could finally destroy forever chemicals—forever.