By Peter Murphy
Published August 15, 2022
Nirupam Aich, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering at the University at Buffalo, received a 2022 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a novel filtration system that can effectively treat PFAS-contaminated water.
He is the fourth faculty member in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to be recognized with this prestigious award in 2022.
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are toxic chemicals that are ubiquitous in consumer and industrial products throughout the United States. These chemicals, by design, are meant to remain stable in extreme conditions – think Teflon, food-packaging or non-sticky pans. However, they maintain this level of stability when released into the environment, earning them the name “forever chemicals.”
“Essentially, they’re everywhere.” Aich says. “It is expected that 99.9% of Americans have PFAS in their blood. PFAS get into the human body through drinking water because the conventional water treatment processes cannot remove them.”
This has implications for human health. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS concentration in water has increased from one-trillionth to one-thousandth over the past five – six years, which could have a negative impact on reproductive development and the immune system, increasing the risk of some cancers.
In his CAREER award project, "3D Printed Carbon-Metal Nanohybrid Aerogels for Highly Efficient Adsorptive/Catalytic Removal of PFASs," Aich and his research team will lay the foundation for a novel and integrated filtration/catalytic reactor system that can extract and destroy PFAS from contaminated water sources. To achieve this goal, Aich will leverage a unique 3D printed catalytic graphene-metal nanohybrid aerogel.
“We did some recent studies with a catalytic nanomaterial and realized that we could break the carbon-fluorine chain of the PFAS,” Aich says. “We will 3D print new filters using these carbon-metal nanomaterials, where the carbon will absorb the contaminants on its surface, and the metal nanoparticles will degrade them.”
Nanomaterials and nanohybrids – like the graphene-metal aerogels developed as part of this project – are at the center of Aich’s research interests. Nanomaterials have been used in water treatment for several years, but conventional methods use them in powder form.
“When we use nanomaterials in powder form, it is difficult, if not impossible, to remove them from water. However, solid structures called aerogels can be used instead,” says Aich. “These are gel-like porous structures through which water flows. They act like a sponge – once the contaminants are soaked up, the sponge can remove them.”
Aich plans to apply this concept to PFAS water treatment, but the aerogel will have a metal catalyst on its surface to degrade the PFAS. If successful, this project could lead to the widespread use of novel water treatment devices to destroy PFAS and other emerging contaminants in the water supply.
“Nirupam’s work will contribute to solving one of the more important problems facing environmental engineers and scientists. PFAS are prevalent throughout our natural environment, raising significant human health concerns,” says Alan Rabideau, professor and chair of the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. “His development of a 3D-printable nanohybrid is innovative and will accelerate progress in treating PFAS-contaminated water.”
Aich has developed several outreach initiatives to share this work, and train others as part of the CAREER award. He plans to train middle and high school teachers and develop lesson plans for their students about environmental pollution and engineering solutions, including using nanotechnology and 3D printing.
At the university level, he will introduce a new course for undergraduate and graduate students titled Sustainable Materials for Environmental Engineering, and mentor undergraduate students, specifically from groups that have been historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
Aich will also collaborate with different units across UB to facilitate the educational outreach. The Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP) will help him determine which teachers to train, and Sunha Kim, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology, will help Aich evaluate how the students are learning.
Aich joined UB in 2016. He is a faculty affiliate with UB’s Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water (RENEW) and the UB Community of Excellence in Global Health equity. He earned his PhD in civil engineering from the University of Texas, Austin in 2015.