Overcoming the downside of 'forever chemicals'

Research project aims to reduce persistently problematic sources of contamination

August 8, 2023

In the realm of chemicals and materials, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, present one of the most dramatic contrasts between the value of what they are good at doing and the dangers they can present.

“PFAS materials are almost indestructible, which makes them exceptionally effective in ways that benefit us. But that is also why they’ve become a widespread threat to our health,” says Christopher Muhich, an assistant professor of chemical engineering in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. Man pointing to a computer screen that a student is looking at. Christopher Muhich (standing), an assistant professor of chemical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, and postdoctoral researcher Yu Yan examine a computer simulation of trifluoroacetate interacting with a palladium oxide surface. They are attempting to determine the potential of the surface to act as an effective catalyst for processes being developed in Muhich’s lab to prevent the often environmentally harmful impacts posed by the nearly ubiquitous substances known as forever chemicals. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

These materials are commonly called "forever chemicals" because of their extraordinary resilience. For that reason, they are optimal for making materials waterproof, fire-retardant, decay-resistant and difficult to break.

Their long-lasting properties also mean once they get into the environment — from fighting fires, leaching out of waste disposal sites, or flowing into the air or water from industrial processes — they stay there.

“They have worked well for so many things, but then it turned out these substances that have been accumulating in our environment for about 50 years could also kill us,” Muhich says. “They are now ubiquitous. They are in our homes, our water, our blood and the air we breathe.”

It’s why Muhich and others in his areas of expertise are now being enlisted to enable science and engineering advances that will neutralize the threat to human and environmental health from PFAS.

Building defenses against destructive materials

His lab has recently been awarded support from the National Alliance for Water Innovation to develop a process industries and municipalities can use to break down organic compounds — including PFAS, antibiotics and byproducts of chlorination systems and the like.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration have specific interests in such endeavors because of their plans to regulate the use of these substances in water systems.

“The amounts of these substances that are going to be acceptable is miniscule,” Muhich says. “So, it’s going to be a big challenge.”

He adds that stringent regulatory restraints are justified.

“PFAS are considered to be endocrine disruptors. They can disrupt hormonal flow through your system, through your body’s signaling pathways, and they can lead to cancer,” Muhich says. “They can damage the liver and the immune system, cause low birth weights, birth defects, developmental delays, infertility and many other undesirable health outcomes.”

Success in significantly mitigating the threats of forever chemicals will require painstaking efforts in combining research strides in chemistry and materials science, chemical and environmental engineering, and related technical fields at both macro and micro scales, says Paul Westerhoff, an ASU Regents Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, part of the Fulton Schools, and the Fulton Chair of Environmental Engineering.

“It’s all very technically complex and expensive, and there are always risks of unintended consequences when transforming pollutants to hopefully less harmful byproducts,” Westerhoff says. “But this fundamental research is urgent. We need to do this, or we will face bigger problems.”

Applying tech innovation to alleviate dangers

Muhich says a sustainable solution will require more than the traditional approach of extracting, sequestering and locking up the dangerous substances.

“Instead, we are trying to use electricity to decompose these threatening chemical compounds,” Muhich says. “It’s called electric catalysis. We use electricity and metals with specific properties that can break down the chemical bonds of the targeted substances.”

Muhich and his team foresee making advances in materials and catalytic science that will help to prevent the corrosion of materials and increase the stability of the chemical processes involved in water reclamation and desalination efforts.

The project will involve activating mechanisms and processes at molecular and atomic levels using palladium, a metal found in many products and in catalytic converters.

The hope is that this approach will provide ways to reduce or prevent PFAS contaminants from accumulating in the environment and in animals and people.

These substances are now common in waste storage and waste treatment sites, manufacturing and other industrial sites. Airports and military bases are also a major source of PFAS contaminants, as are a long list of common consumer goods, including cosmetics, cookware and food.

Developing tools to defuse contaminants

Muhich is confident about being able to contribute to a deeper understanding of the fundamental characteristics of PFAS, learning how to reduce or eliminate their toxicity and preventing their overwhelming accumulation.

“We are using supercomputers to do advanced computational chemistry to understand how atoms interact with each other on catalytic surfaces, how they transport electrons back and forth, and how the atoms bind to each other,” Muhich says.

“If we can understand that, then we will know how to facilitate the breaking of the carbon-fluorine bonds that hold PFAS together. Once you do that the molecules are much less toxic. This also gives us a location that can be a target for natural bacteria to attack the rest of the PFAS molecules.”

The ultimate goal of the three-year project is to enable a lab demonstration of a complete device that can execute a complete destruction of PFAS molecules, Muhich says, and to provide a road map to an economical deployment of the device in the decontamination field.

The project will also provide research experiences for both graduate and undergraduate students.

“Key ideas behind this research are related to the foundations of what is taught in our core chemical engineering courses, especially in areas of reaction engineering and reaction kinetics,” Muhich says.

“We are excited about creating an opportunity to teach undergraduates not only the methods of electrical catalysis, but also how to think about engineering reactions in water environments, which involve various aspects that are often ignored in reaction engineering.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU Enterprise Partners honored as top employer for 10th consecutive year

August 8, 2023

ASU Enterprise Partners earned a spot among the Top Companies to Work For in Arizona, marking this its 10th consecutive year achieving the award in the medium employer category.

The award was presented by Arizona Capitol Times, in partnership with Best Companies AZ and Best Companies Group, and was determined through employee surveys designed to determine the best employers in the state. The employer’s leadership, culture, communication, job satisfaction, work environment, training and development, pay and benefits, and engagement are among the qualities employees are asked about. Exterior shot of ASU building with a sign that reads "Fulton Center" and palm trees. The Fulton Center is home to ASU Enterprise Partners. Download Full Image

ASU Enterprise Partners is a private, nonprofit parent company whose mission is to provide an ecosystem of services to create solutions and generate resources to extend Arizona State University’s reach and advance its charter.

ASU Enterprise Partners supports ASU through resource raising, realty development, technology transfer, collaborative research and acceleration of ed-tech innovations. Its business units include the ASU Foundation, ASU Outreach Hub, ASURE, Enterprise Collaboratory at ASU, RealmSpark, University Realty LLC and Milo Space Science Institute.

“At Enterprise Partners, our top priority is the professional development and job fulfillment of our employees,” ASU Enterprise Partners Chief Executive Officer Dan Dillon said. “Our leadership strives to ensure our employees know every day how critical they are to our overall success.”

Since earning the award in the previous year, ASU Enterprise Partners has been at work developing new and exciting outlets for the company to express gratitude and appreciation for its employees.

ASU Enterprise Partners Chief People Officer Gina Miller helped evolve the way employees receive recognition with the introduction of Awardco, a digital platform designed to recognize and reward those employees that go above and beyond or achieve something significant.

“We wanted to offer something new for our employees, something that really helps communicate the gratitude we have for everyone,” Miller said. “Awardco helps us do that in a meaningful way.”

The platform is used as a communication tool for ASU Enterprise Partners to celebrate employees’ special milestones, such as work anniversaries, finishing a degree, birthdays and more. It also serves as a tool for communicating employee-to-employee gratitude, strengthening the workplace culture and allowing everyone to feel as though they are making a difference with their job.

Along with Awardco, ASU Enterprise Partners offers full-time employees health, wellness and retirement benefits, plus budgeting and personal finance tools, an employer-paid health reimbursement account, employer-paid 401(k) match and discretionary contributions, a hybrid work schedule, discounted tuition to take classes at Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona for employees and their immediate family, and access to hundreds of complimentary digital personal and professional development courses.

In addition, ASU Enterprise Partners hosts employee appreciation lunches and company-sponsored family events, along with employees receiving their birthday off with pay, in addition to 12 weeks of paid parental leave, vacation and sick time, and a comprehensive holiday schedule.

Written by Richard Canas