University researchers supported by ICD are developing new plasma technology to break down “forever chemicals”

The Australian Research Council has granted funding to University of Sydney researchers as part a program that aims to investigate and remediate chemically contaminated soil, groundwater, waterways and marine systems.

Researchers from the University of Sydney’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering have been announced as a recipient of an Australian Research Council PFAS Remediation Research Program grant.

The scheme will fund the development of a system that effectively removes per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from contaminated water.

Often referred to as “forever chemicals”, PFAS are persistent pollutants that do not readily break down, accumulating in the environment and often leading to the contamination of water sources and food.

Led by chemical engineers, Professor Patrick “PJ” Cullen, Associate Professor John Kavanagh, Dr Dale McClure and Professor David Fletcher along with Dr Trevor Walker and the Advanced Engineering team at ICD, the group is developing a ‘plasma bubble column’ that destroys PFAS in water.

“Plasma is a highly reactive cocktail of oxygen species which has the potential to effectively breakdown PFAS, chemicals which have polluted water sources,” said Professor Cullen.

“The project aims to develop a new class of plasma water treatment reactor that can degrade PFAS simply and economically, that will be scaled and tested at contaminated sites around Australia,” he said.

ICD Asia Pacific and Broadspectrum are working with the University on a pilot plant, and once proven, will look to scale the technology for use at various sites.

“ICD’s engineering work within hazardous materials means that we have worked with several clients who wish to remediate PFAS contaminated sites” said Dr Walker.

“By collaborating with the University of Sydney on this project, ICD are able to offer technical expertise and a link to industry who have been looking for an economic solution to this remediation exercise for several years.” 

Bubble columns are gas and liquid chambers that are widely used in the chemical and fermentation industries.

In use since the 1940s, PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals that can be found in a wide range of products such as carpets, firefighting foams and industrial chemicals.

Professor Cullen hopes the technology could also be applied to other difficult to treat pollutants including pesticides, pharmaceuticals and endocrine disruptors.

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