PFAS, short for poly and perfluoroalkyl substances, have been used in commercial products since the 1940s. There are more than 4,000 different chemicals in the class. Some of the most commonly used PFAS chemicals, like PFOS and PFOA, have long half-lives, which has earned them the moniker “forever chemicals.”
These dangerous chemicals have not been manufactured in the U.S. since the early 2000s, but they can still be found in various imported goods. PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancer, birth defects, thyroid disease, and liver damage. These forever chemicals linger in the environment and scientists have found them in the blood of virtually all Americans.
Researchers at Rice University have recently discovered an efficient catalyst for destroying PFAS forever chemicals. Unexpectedly, the catalyst was actually in the control group in a study they were performing.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, found that boron nitride, acting as a light-activated catalyst, destroyed PFOA at a faster clip than any previously reported photocatalyst.
The catalyst, boron nitride powder, is a commercially available synthetic mineral that is widely used in makeup, skincare products, thermal pastes for cooling computer chips, and various other industrial products. The discovery began with dozens of failed experiments on a variety of more promising PFAS catalysts. But along the way, they found that the boron nitride control material repeatedly yielded positive results.
The research has already attracted the attention of industrial partners seeking to develop off-grid water treatment systems that both protect human lives and support sustainable economic development.
Photo, posted April 9, 2009, courtesy of Rex Roof via Flickr.