Research team investigating ’forever chemicals’ in water systems

Western Engineering PhD candidate Maddalena Laghezza fills the hopper of the pil
Western Engineering PhD candidate Maddalena Laghezza fills the hopper of the pilot plant used for PFAS destruction, assisted by ICFAR technology specialist Lu Liu. Photo by Franco Berruti

Researchers at Western’s Institute for Chemicals and Fuels from Alternative Resources (ICFAR) and collaborators from academia, government and industry are identifying and treating ’forever chemicals’áin water systems, an ever-increasing environmental concern which affects more than 2.5 million Canadians.

Forever chemicals, the common name for perand polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are a new class of more than 4,000 environmental contaminants whose impact on human health is yet unknown. PFAS are used in a wide range of products such as cosmetics, textiles, fire-fighting foams and food packaging materials.

Western chemical engineering professor Franco Berruti and his colleagues at ICFAR are already making considerable advances for destroying PFAS in biosolids by using thermochemical treatment (pyrolysis) and in water by applying ultraviolet (UV) treatment. áNow, new funding from Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) will push the research even further.

This collaborative University of Waterloo-Western research project will determine which PFAS are present in Ontario waters, determine the chemical and physical processes underpinning treatment technologies, and provide key information to inform Canadian water systems of potential PFAS contaminants and treatment options.

"Our challenge is the strength of the carbon-fluorine bond which makes these chemicals extremely stable," said Berruti. "Our approach is to use high temperatures in the absence of oxygen to crack them into innocuous fragments. We will be working with our colleagues from Waterloo to characterize the fate of the PFAS and their derivatives and ensure their safety."

For the study, water samples will be collected at the input source and along various points throughout the treatment process. Researchers will focus on catchment areas of Union Water Supply System, Lake Huron Primary Water Supply System, Elgin Area Primary Water Supply System, Lambton Area Water Supply System, Peel Region, the City of Cornwall Water System and the cities of Durham and London. In addition, biosolids will be collected at all the wastewater treatment plants.

Destruction of PFAS in water streams and in the biosolids collected in wastewater treatment plants requires advanced and innovative treatment methods to avoid their accumulation and their dispersion in the ecosystem and the ICFAR team is well equipped to face the challenge.

"This (NSERC Alliance Option 2) funding allows us to further our advancements in best practices for removing forever chemicals from Canada’s water supply," said Berruti, ICFAR founding director and NSERC industrial chair. "In partnership with industry, municipalities, and colleagues from the University of Waterloo, ICFAR is extremely proud of our expanding research activities aimed at developing new innovations in water purification while making a direct impact on the community."

Locally, ICFAR partners with London-based USP Technologies Inc. on its PFAS investigation, specifically Domenico Santoro, senior manager, research, and innovation. Santoro is also an adjunct research professor at Western Engineering.

Berruti and his team are also working with University of Waterloo chemistry professor Scott Hopkins, who serves as project lead, as well as, Brown and Caldwell, the Ontario Clean Water Agency, Ontario Water Consortium, Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, and seven regional water supply systems in Ontario.

NSERC Alliance Option 2 grants encourage university researchers to collaborate with partner organizations from the private, public, or not-for-profit sectors. These grants support research projects led by strong, complementary, collaborative teams that will generate new knowledge and accelerate the application of research results to create benefits for Canada. Under Alliance Option 2, NSERC provides an increased financial support to research projects that aim to address important issues that have a direct impact on society.