Environmental engineers develop nanomaterials and microbes to break down forever chemicals

Aich(left), Bradley (right).

Aich (left) and Bradley (right) will combine expertise on nanomaterials and microbes on a project to eliminate PFAS chemicals.

By Peter Murphy

Published February 4, 2021

Environmental engineering assistant professors Nirupam Aich and Ian Bradley will combine expertise in nanotechnology and microorganisms to destroy per- and per- and polyfluroalkyl substances (PFASs) on a project bringing $750,000 to the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering.

A multi-disciplinary approach to deal with the PFASs pollution problem

“The results from the preliminary study are really promising since conventional materials aren't capable of partially breaking the materials down. In our current study, the goal will be to achieve further degradation and decomposition using more advanced nanohybrids. ”
Nirupam Aich, Assistant Professor
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

“PFASs are ubiquitous in the natural environment: in groundwater, wastewater, soils; and they are harmful to the organisms and fish as well as for human health”, Aich says, “The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has placed PFASs in its priority pollutant list.”

This project is funded by National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ (NIEHS) superfund research program (SRP) and is led by Diana Aga, Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry at UB. The team also includes faculty from the University of Pittsburgh.

One reason the research is particularly compelling: The team will use analytical and computational techniques to understand, in detail, how PFASs degrade at each step of the proposed treatment process. This will allow scientists and engineers to understand the mechanisms behind degradation, and optimize the design of a highly efficient system. Researchers will aim to understand what happens to the PFASs as they break down, understand what byproducts are produced and how the PFASs interact with nanomaterials and microbes.

According to Aich, this research could have significant impacts throughout the U.S., “Nearly every federal agency funding scientific research related to the environment like the USEPA, National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense are looking at how to solve the PFASs pollution problem.”

PFASs are not naturally degradable substances, and have been used in products such as Teflon, water- and scratch-resistant materials and fire extinguisher foams. These chemicals, by design, are meant to remain stable in extreme conditions, and are difficult for natural or biological organisms to break down. Aich and his research team will synthesize new nanomaterials to initiate the break-down of these forever chemicals. Bradley and his team will investigate microbial communities that could further decompose these substances.

“Individually, nanomaterials or microbes may not break down the whole [PFAS] compound,” says Bradley, who is also a faculty member in UB’s RENEW Institute, “but biodegradation combined with nanomaterials could potentially break down the compound to a non-toxic substance.”

Aich and Bradley will design a unique system to leverage both nanomaterial-based and biological processes to breakdown PFAS materials, and Aga’s team will perform advanced chemical analysis to check how the system is working. “The design of the nanomaterials and the isolation of bacteria will be guided by models resulting from chemical analysis and protein simulations,” Aga says.

Diana Aga, PhD, working in her lab.

Diana Aga, Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry at UB is the project's principal investigator. 

Aich’s Laboratory of Environmental Nanotechnology and Sustainability (#AichLENS) and Aga’s team have demonstrated the capability of nanohybrids to partially degrade PFAS compounds in a recent article published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters. AIchLENS develops advanced multifunctional nanomaterials, called nanohybrids. Arvid Masud, one of Aich’s former PhD students, and Mary Grace Guardian, one of Aga’s former PhD students, are equally contributing first authors on this preliminary study funded by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC), the Great Lakes Research Consortium Small Grant Program and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“The results from the preliminary study are really promising since conventional materials aren’t capable of partially breaking the materials down,” Aich says. “In our current study, the goal will be to achieve further degradation and decomposition using more advanced nanohybrids.”

Bradley and his team will seek to collect samples from locations such as wastewater treatment plants and PFASs contaminated soil where environmental pressures may have selected for bacteria capable of degrading some types of PFASs. According to Bradley, a complete system is necessary to break these forever chemicals down. “PFASs don’t breakdown with just microbial communities,” Bradley says, “nanomaterials breakdown PFASs significantly, but not the entire compound. PFASs form large chains of compounds, and nanomaterials help break these into smaller pieces, which will be useable as food source for the microbes, potentially degrading them into harmless by-products.”

These materials are difficult to breakdown, but according to Bradley, a system of innovative nanomaterials and biological processes is a cost-effective way to further break down PFASs. In this project, biological processes will try to identify effective bacteria.  “We are going to use DNA and RNA sequencing to understand ‘who is there’ and ‘what are they doing,’” Bradley says, “there are nutrient-limited anaerobic systems where bacteria feed on whatever they can find, including hard-to-degrade contaminants. We want to know if they can do this with PFASs, and if they can, could we isolate them?”

While a working system is still years away, researchers recognize the importance of addressing this issue and remain hopeful. “We’re trying to understand how these nanomaterials and microbial communities interact with PFASs,” Aich says, “In the future, the knowledge we gather can be used to devise new and cost-effective materials or processes for removing PFAS or other compounds.”

For more information on the project, visit this link.