Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of manufactured chemicals used in various industrial and consumer applications for over 60 years. They are often used in products such as non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting, and firefighting foam. PFAS are extremely persistent in the environment, meaning they do not break down easily, leading to them being dubbed “forever chemicals.”
The widespread use of these chemicals has led to their presence in the environment, including in drinking water sources. While the concentration of PFAS in groundwater can vary from one part per trillion to as high as one part per million, studies have shown that long-term exposure to PFAS can have serious health effects.
Many communities across the United States have discovered that their drinking water is contaminated with PFAS, leading to concerns about the health effects of long-term exposure. PFAS chemicals are known to accumulate in the body over time, and exposure has been linked to an increased risk of several health problems, including cancer, developmental and reproductive issues, and a decreased immune system response.
“PFAS have been shown to negatively impact human health and are extremely difficult to break down. Therefore, we need a very efficient way to capture and destroy PFAS,” said Qi Hua Fan, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Michigan State University (MSU).
Fan has developed a high-volume water filtration technology method utilizing electrical-field-enhanced absorption on activated carbon made of biochar. “Biochar is a kind of carbon derived from biomass like wood chips, grass, or corn stalks. By activating biochar, we can make activated carbon with a very large surface area. As a result, it can effectively capture a large amount of impurities like PFAS,” Fan explained.
Additionally, the electrical fieldenhanced absorption is 30x more efficient at filtering PFAS out of contaminated water than other solutions. Their low cost allows for a high degree of scalability from individual home filtration to large-scale industrial applications.
Fan also noted that his team’s method to create biochar has other potential applications. “Activated carbon, or how we create it to capture PFAS, can be used to capture other impurities and toxic chemicals in drinking water. Likewise, the activated carbon can be used for water desalination and can capture ions in produced water with basically unlimited applications,” Fan stated.
However, once the PFAS has been removed from the water, it must be broken down to prevent it from re-entering the environment. Fan’s research team has recently developed a novel solution to break down the normally very resilient PFAS chemicals.
“My group focuses on plasma science and technology research. Our research started with understanding plasma discharge and plasma material interactions,” Fan said, adding, “PFAS are a very stable chemical and very difficult to break down. However, plasma has an interesting nature; that is, it contains a lot of energetic particles. These particles are so energetic that they can easily break down PFAS.”
Solving real-world challenges has always been a driving force for Fan. “Before joining MSU, I worked in industry for seven years, which was a valuable experience that changed my mind when I started a research project. That is, I always think what the end application will be and whether it would be possible to use my research for real problems. The second is all these difficult-to-solve problems require a fundamental understanding of the science behind it and coming up with a practical solution,” said Fan.
Fan also recognizes MSU as the perfect fit to support his research. “A lot of practical and difficult-to-solve problems require the effort from a multidisciplinary approach. I think MSU is the right place that allows us to take advantage of expertise in different areas, from fundamental research to applied development. This kind of combination is a very unique feature at MSU and for my research,” commented Fan.
“One example is we collaborated with a professor from the MSU Department of Chemistry and research scientists and engineers from Fraunhofer to allow us to understand the mechanisms and then develop the technology that can be immediately applied to real-world problems,” recounted Fan.
Fan noted the abundance of resources available, which played critical roles in support of his team’s work. From access to translational grant funding through the Michigan Translational Research & Commercialization (MTRAC) program, which provides grant funding to researchers like Fan to translate fundamental research into practical solutions, to intellectual property (IP) protection and other services offered through the MSU Innovation Center.
“The MSU Innovation Center played a critical role in promoting this technology, starting with IP protection, to reaching potential customers or users, and bringing the technology to the real market,” said Fan.
Fan’s exemplary work tackling the filtration and removal of PFAS from groundwater and other sources was why he was named the MSU Innovator of the Year. When asked his thoughts about being named the recipient of this year’s award, Fan said, “It’s an honor, and I’m really happy to hear that. I would say that it’s not my own effort that makes this technology real but is also an effort from my students, the collaboration with the Fraunhofer research center scientist and engineers, and many years of research sponsored by the National Science Foundation, MTRAC, and the Great Lakes Protection Fund. So, I would like to share this good news with them; it is a really big honor.”