Innovation and Teamwork to Address PFAS Treatment
Published August 4, 2020
When you need to solve a pressing problem, one that is complicated and requires out-of-the-box thinking, you need to focus your attention, minimize distractions and barriers, and work with others to come up with innovative ideas. That’s exactly what EPA’s PFAS Innovative Treatment Team (PITT) is doing to help address PFAS.
The PITT, formed in Spring 2020, is a dedicated, full-time team that brings together a wide range of multi-disciplined researchers. These researchers are concentrating their efforts and expertise on a single problem: how to destroy PFAS-contaminated media and waste.
States, tribes, and communities are all burdened by various sources of PFAS waste, including unused fire retardants, and contaminated landfill leachate. There are technologies, such as incineration, that aim to destroy PFAS in these wastes, but in some cases, greater certainty into how these technologies work is still needed. And because PFAS chemicals have a very strong carbon-fluorine bond that makes complete destruction difficult, this effort is particularly challenging.
“The ubiquity of PFAS in many waste sources, the multitude of PFAS chemicals, and the trace levels pose significant challenges for development and verification of treatment technologies,” says EPA researcher Dr. Brian Gullett, who is managing this innovative effort. “Conventional incineration technologies, as well as novel, developing technologies, also have the potential to create harmful byproducts. This adds an additional layer of complexity to the issue that we are seeking to understand.”
The PITT is currently undertaking a six-month effort to assess current and emerging destruction methods. This includes exploring how well these methods work to destroy PFAS while also considering their potential to create harmful byproducts and evaluating how feasible – in terms of cost and performance – it is to use these methods outside the lab. Researchers are working across the Agency, and also with industry and academia, to gather data and accomplish these goals.
The PITT is modeled after NASA’s Swamp Works and aeronautical engineer Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works efforts, which used lean development and management principles to facilitate fast and innovative results.
“The scientists and engineers on the Team have a range of diverse expertise, which brings together different perspectives and ideas that lead to creative, innovative solutions,” says Dr. Gullett. “Direct and daily commitment from management and strong support from Agency personnel is also helping the Team rapidly advance our work.”
EPA expects that the PITT team will have results in just a few months. This work will add practical knowledge to EPA’s efforts under the PFAS Action Plan – the most comprehensive cross-agency pan ever to address an emerging chemical of concern. States, tribes, and local governments will be able to use this information to select the treatment approaches that best fit their circumstances, leading to safer communities and greater confidence in cleanup efforts.