Helbling lab receives DOD funds to nix nasty chemicals from groundwater

Damian Helbling, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, has received a three-year, $750,000 grant from the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, part of the U.S. Department of Defense, to conduct research that may rid groundwater of toxic chemicals.

For decades, aqueous film-forming foam has been used to put out the intense hydrocarbon fuel-based fires during firefighter training exercises at U.S. military facilities. Key parts of the aqueous foam include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly called PFASs. The used foam can seep downward, however, and contaminate groundwater. Their occurrence in groundwater near military bases has been widely reported.

“We will be developing cost-effective remediation strategies to remove PFASs from groundwater,” said Helbling, a fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. “We want to create solid materials – novel polymer adsorbents, with a tailored affinity for PFASs – that would pull these chemicals out of water.”

There are hundreds of chemicals in the foam, and they are extremely difficult to remove from water because the carbon-fluorine bond is so strong, explained Helbling. “It’s very hard to destroy these chemicals. Bacteria can’t break them down. Neither incineration nor chemical destruction work well. Engineers and scientists are converging on the idea that adsorption-based technologies might be best approach.”

Will Dichtel, Northwestern University professor of chemistry, joins Helbling on receiving this grant.

“To examine the genesis of this research, you have to rewind the clock,” said Helbling, as he and Dichtel published research last year on how a novel polymer could remove highly toxic water pollutants (perfluorooctanoic acid) from drinking water using an inexpensive material to chemically shackle the toxins.

Helbling and Dichtel received a 2015 Academic Venture Fund grant from the Atkinson Center. They had invented a promising polymer that removes trace water contaminants – including pesticides and pharmaceuticals – more quickly than widely used sorbents like activated carbon. With the Atkinson grant, the scientists aimed to analyze the polymer’s performance on emerging contaminants and demonstrate scalability. Since then, the Helbling and Dichtel collaboration has led to rationally modified polymers that target other emerging contaminants like PFASs.

Said Helbling: “All of this started with the Atkinson Center grant.”

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Jeff Tyson