Academia Meets Industry: UA Superfund Basic Research Program (SBRP) /3M Collaboration; Gamma-irradiation of Fluorochemicals in Water

The University of Arizona SBRP investigators, Drs. Eric Betterton and Eduardo Sáez, were recently awarded $25,000 from 3M Corporation to work collaboratively on the degradation of perfluorochemicals (PFCs) in water via gamma irradiation. PFCs are essential ingredients in a family of Teflon-like substances with multiple consumer applications such as; non-stick pots and pans, stain repellents for carpets and furniture, and weather-proof fabrics. Industry makes use of the slick, heat-stable properties of these chemicals to manufacture everything from computers to cosmetics and household cleaners.

PFCs are composed of varying lengths of carbon chains, strongly bonded to fluorine atoms, which create nearly indestructible chemicals that were thought to be biologically inert. Recent research shows that some PFCs do actually breakdown, but only as far as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS); which are accumulating in the environment and may pose a serious health risk to humans. According to the EPA, PFOA is “persistent in the environment…” and in 1978 PFOA was confirmed to be “completely resistant to biodegradation” in a study done by 3M*.

Betterton and Sáez have conducted an initial study demonstrating that gamma irradiation degrades PFOA and PFOS in water, at low but significant yields. It is hypothesized that degradation is initiated by the attack of an aquated electron that is formed from the radiological decomposition of water. To understand whether this treatment process can result in the full decomposition of PFCs in water and what the efficiency is for the reaction; 3M and UA researchers need to progress past the proof-of-concept stage.

By working together, The University of Arizona team will irradiate various PFC samples provided by 3M. These irradiated samples will them be sent back to the 3M Environmental Lab to identify the irradiation products and determine the concentration of the remaining fluorochemicals through tandem mass spectrometry. Once the analyses at 3M are complete, the data will be shared with the University of Arizona to determine the effectiveness of the process. Ultimately, this endeavor could yield a viable commercial treatment for PFCs in contaminated groundwater or surface water supplies.