Used in an array of industrial applications, including firefighting foam, chemically they were made to withstand extreme conditions.
But it is that very pervasiveness that makes PFAS such a problem. The chemicals travel into water supplies, make their way into plants and animals and are persistent.
Today, as many as five serious human health risks have been associated with PFAS, from some forms of cancer and immune system conditions to low birthweights and thyroid problems.
But SA researchers and industry partners are set to significantly expand their efforts to tackle the PFAS problem with an integrated solution that combines clever chemistry and a sophisticated filtration system.
Led by the University of South Australia, the three-year research project has been awarded close to $500,000 through the Australian Research Council’s Special Research Initiative (SRI) program and will bring together researchers from all three SA universities and industry partners, Membrane Systems Australia and Puratap, to tackle the problem.
To support the research, UniSA is also contributing a further $100,000 along with a $150,000 contribution from Membrane Systems Australia.
Prof John Hayball from UniSA’s School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences says the funding will go a long way to helping researchers perfect a cost-effective water filtration system that cleverly integrates contaminant destruction with new filtration technology to isolate and destroy PFAS.
“We are working with advanced adsorbent materials made from a novel sulphur co-polymer and activated carbon, both of which have high capacity to bind with PFAS,” Prof Hayball says.
“When combined as a composite, the materials provide significant advantages for PFAS remediation.
Dr Justin Chalker from Flinders University says the goal for the research is to develop a filtration system that can be employed in mobile water treatment plants to remediate PFAS contaminated aquifers wherever they are.
“We are aiming to develop sustainable, cost-effective and scalable technology that can be rapidly deployed,” Dr Chalker says.
UniSA Research Fellow, Dr Martin Sweetman, who is working closely with Puratap Pty Ltd on other water filtration projects says the research team is also hoping to develop point-of-use water filters for individual, domestic use.
“This will give people a tangible solution to what is being seen as a PFAS crisis in Australia,” Dr Sweetman says.
Prof Hayball says the collaboration across SA universities and with industry is a fantastic example of how such research teams can join forces and expertise to solve important real-world problems.