UMN Research Tackles Forever Chemicals

Rusting old pipes laid on a bed of rocks above a water body

Minnesota just passed Amara’s Law, which bans nonessential use of “forever chemicals” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and makes it illegal to sell or distribute some products with intentionally added PFAS beginning January 1, 2025. In the summer of 2023, the United States Environmental Protection Agency proposed a nationwide regulation on the amount of PFAS in drinking water.

“My hope is that these regulations will bring even more attention to these chemicals so that the best minds can think about how to destroy them,” said Matt Simcik, environmental chemist and School of Public Health professor. “I say destroy because all we've been able to do so far is capture them with adsorbents, and then we have to deal with that waste.”

Man smiling with arms crossed
Matt Simcik

Simcik, whose research focuses on how and why organic pollutants end up in the atmosphere and water, has been thinking about PFAS since 2000, when he was invited by 3M to listen to a debrief on research they’d contracted that showed measurable PFAS in a variety of wildlife.

3M was particularly invested in PFAS since the corporation had a role in developing the chemicals, which were useful for non-stick cookware, stain and water-repellent technology, fast food wrappers, and foam used to fight petroleum fires, in the 1940s. The company began monitoring the amount of PFAS in employee blood in the 1970s and, by the late 1990s, couldn’t find any blood that wasn’t contaminated, which was contrary to what the company had expected based on what was then known about the fate and transport of organic contaminants.

While early research did not show significant adverse health effects, subsequent epidemiology has shown that PFAS alter the lipid content of blood. “This may not seem like a big deal,” said Simcik. “But we know that fats are super important in fetal development. My concern is that if and when we find adverse outcomes, it will be in children.”

3M reduced production of PFAS after this research (and pledged to stop production entirely by 2025), but they’d already been used in so many different consumer, industrial, and military products, and once used, the PFAS from these products get released into the environment. While the US is curtailing production of PFAS, there’s no telling what other nations are doing, making this a global problem.

Simcik and his team have developed a sequestration method through which they can inject material into an aquifer to keep PFAS from migrating with the water and contaminating drinking water sources. They’d like to extend this treatment to wastewater and landfills, which is where most PFAS ultimately end up.

“PFAS are so resistant to degradation due to the carbon-flourine bond, which is the strongest-known covalent bond, and biology hasn’t had a chance to evolve biodegradation pathways.”

Christy Haynes smiling
Christy Haynes

Simcik isn’t the only UMN researcher thinking about PFAS. Chemistry department head and Distinguished McKnight University Professor Christy Haynes’ interest in PFAS has both applied and fundamental aspects. “From the applied perspective, my interest lies in the environmental and human health relevance of detecting, removing, and degrading PFAS,” she said. “From the fundamental perspective, PFAS molecules have unusual and interesting chemical and physical properties. Designing molecules or materials that interact with PFAS in a useful way is an exciting chemistry challenge.”

Haynes has designed nanomaterials from different earth-abundant elements that can interact with PFAS and facilitate PFAS uptake into plants, which removes them from the soil. She currently has patents in process on two nanoparticle formulations that do this work but the research continues.

“This is highly collaborative, both within and outside of UMN. Right now, we’re most interested in identifying the optimal nanoparticles and plants to most efficiently remove PFAS from soil. At the same time, we’re still deep in fundamental studies, working to understand how PFAS interact with nanoparticles at a molecular level, because this will help us design even better nanoparticles in the future.”

Logo saying Claros Technologies

In addition to Simcik and Haynes, UMN startup Claros Technologies is working on PFAS remediation with a system that claims to destroy 99.9% of PFAS in water with ultraviolet light and chemistry technology that can be retrofitted into existing water filtration systems. UMN research has also laid out a path to identifying an inexpensive and efficient way to biologically breakdown PFAS, and two research teams have recently received industry funding for their PFAS-research through an internal call for proposals organized by the Corporate Engagement Center.

While there is much more work to do, UMN researchers are amassing evidence and techniques to prove that these forever chemicals may not be so eternal after all.