This podcast was produced for Revive Environmental by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from the magazine’s board of editors.
This interview with David Trueba, President and CEO of Revive Environmental, will discuss how scientists are embracing the challenge of tackling the so-called ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS. Known for their persistence in the environment, these widely used chemicals pose potential threats to human health.
Megan Hall: They’re in your shampoo, your carpet, your non-stick pan, and your fast food wrapper. They’ve also been found at the top of Mount Everest. This group of manufactured chemicals called PFAS are pretty much everywhere you look, and high exposures to them might increase the risk of everything from some cancers to infertility. What do we do about these so-called forever chemicals?
Scientific American Custom Media recently sat down with David Trueba, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Revive Environmental, to learn more about the problem and some possible solutions.
David Trueba fell in love with chemistry when he was a junior in high school.
David Trueba: I was fortunate to have Mrs. Travers as my chemistry teacher.
Lobby: He says Mrs. Travers got him hooked on combining substances to create new ones and solve problems.
Trueba: And she actually worked for the EPA, funny enough.
Lobby: So as a chemist, he actually has a deep respect for the chemicals that include the coating we use for non-stick pans.
Trueba: I honestly think Teflon as a story is really cool. It was happened upon by accident. It’s completely effective.
Lobby: What started as products like Teflon in the late 1930s is now a group of more than 9,000 chemicals called PFAS or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
Trueba: And their purpose is to fight fires and prevent things from sticking and to help in production of many of the products that we really take for granted as a society globally.
Lobby: In part, these PFAS are effective because their chemical bonds are incredibly strong.
Trueba: That’s why they’re called forever chemicals. They were designed to be indestructible. The elegance of the chemistry is that they stick around forever and they can be applied to many surfaces. Once cured, they don’t move. The problem is that they last forever.
Lobby: And they have some serious potential health consequences.
Trueba: So there’s real issues with prolonged exposure. Cancer, reproductive issues, growth and deformities, birth defects. These are real situations that people have experienced in the last probably 30 years, plus.
Lobby: So what do you do with harmful indestructible chemicals that are found in hundreds of products? Many consumers use activated carbon filters to strain PFAS out of our water.
Trueba: Think of a Brita water filter. It’s capturing contaminants, keeping your water odor and taste positive, etc.
Lobby: But eventually those carbon sponges, which are made of materials like wood, coconut shells, coal or peat, reach their capacity and have to get thrown out. David says they’re then sent to landfills, buried deep underground or burned in an incinerator. But that doesn’t get rid of the PFAS.
Trueba: You’re moving the problem from the source to a place where it’s going to go back in the environment.
Lobby: Remember, these are forever chemicals. They’re still soaked into the sponges. There’s even debate about whether burning them is effective.
Trueba: There’s a lot of science right now on incineration. I won’t speak for the incineration industry. What I can tell you is that there was PFAS rain that came from the air in the summer of 2021.
Lobby: That can’t be good. So scientists and engineers started working on another approach.
Trueba: Battelle Memorial Institute, our founding company, they saw PFAS as a challenge five years ago and they chartered a group of the best scientists in the world to come up with a suite of how do you deal with PFAS.
Lobby: They designed a process that uses extreme heat and energy to treat PFAS-contaminated water.
Trueba: Our reactors go above 374 degrees Celsius and over 3,000 PSI. That’s a lot of pressure. It creates what’s called supercritical water.
Lobby: When water is in that supercritical state, it’s both a liquid and a gas. That gives it unique powers.
Trueba: It fully dissolves oxygen from the air, and any solvent or any ion can be fully dissolved.
Lobby: David says that dissolved oxygen attaches to the PFAS and breaks it.
Trueba: So dirty black water goes in and clean water comes out. And there’s only two by-products. It’s clean water and salt.
Lobby: They decided to call the closed system that makes this possible the PFAS Annihilator.
Trueba: I think it’s an apt name because annihilation is really what happens. There’s no trace of that PFAS molecule left.
Lobby: Other companies use the same approach to destroy PFAS or treat toxic sludge, but David says the Annihilator is faster.
Trueba: Some technologies take hours to do this. We do it in less than 10 seconds.
Lobby: And David says the Annihilator is already being used in the field, treating PFAS-contaminated liquid 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Trueba: Revive just launched our first commercial-scale unit to the State of Michigan, and we’re live. We’re producing right now, PFAS destruction.
Lobby: The company also has a product to treat those carbon sponges that filter PFAS out of the water. David says it can…
Trueba: Extract the PFAS off the carbon, leave the carbon there, and make the carbon more effective for PFAS capture. And we all do that for less money than it costs to discharge and dispose of the carbon, and it lasts four times longer.
Lobby: David is optimistic about his company’s efforts to treat PFAS. Over the next two years, he hopes to deliver 25 PFAS Annihilators to spots around North America. But he says there’s a lot more work to be done.
Trueba: First of all, there’s a real need to look at our infrastructure, why we use PFAS today, and to replace materials.
Lobby: Because if industry stopped using PFAS in their products, there’d be less of a need to clean them up. But to do that, we’d need something to replace them.
Trueba: Just PFAS replacement as a goal is a scientific opportunity that’s really exciting.
Lobby: David says the scientific community could also help with another PFAS challenge. The chemicals are hard to detect in low concentrations.
Trueba: The health advisory limits are in the part per quadrillion. One part per trillion, just to give you a flavor of the scope, it is a single drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Part per quadrillion is one thousandth of that. We can’t detect below part per trillion today.
Lobby: David also welcomes help in his area of expertise, removing PFAS from the environment.
Trueba: How do you deal with a PFAS that’s already here? And whether that’s soil extraction or remediation, taking care of drinking water at source, or eliminating the challenge of recycle, these are all opportunities that we can get around, extracting, removing and eliminating PFAS from the community.
Lobby: David says he’s still in awe of PFAS. They’re a marvel of chemistry, though it turns out that being virtually indestructible does come with drawbacks.
Trueba: Innovation today might be a challenge tomorrow. We do the best that we can with what we know.
Lobby: David says he’s inspired to stand on the shoulders of a scientist who developed PFAS to address the challenges they created. It’s what his chemistry teacher, Mrs. Travers, would’ve wanted.
David Trueba is the President and CEO of Revive Environmental.
Revive Environmental is a full-service environmental contaminant mitigation company on a mission to rid America of water contaminated by PFAS. This podcast was produced by Scientific American Custom Media and made possible through the support of Revive Environmental.
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