A team of scientists has found a cheap, effective way to destroy so-called forever chemicals, a group of compounds that pose a global threat to human health.
The chemicals — known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are found in a spectrum of products and contaminate water and soil around the world. Left on their own, they are remarkably durable, remaining dangerous for generations.
Scientists have been searching for ways to destroy them for years. In a study, published Thursday in the journal Science, a team of researchers rendered PFAS molecules harmless by mixing them with two inexpensive compounds at a low boil. In a matter of hours, the PFAS molecules fell apart.
Unfortunately, Dr. Trang discovered how well DMSO worked in March 2020 and was promptly shut out of the lab by the pandemic. She spent the next two and a half months dreaming of other ingredients which she could add to the DMSO soup to hasten the destruction of PFAS chemicals.
On Dr. Trang’s return, she started testing a number of chemicals until she found one that worked. It was sodium hydroxide, the chemical in lye.
When she heated the mixture to temperatures between about 175 degrees to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, most of the PFAS molecules broke down in a matter of hours. Within days, the remaining fluorine-bearing byproducts broke down into harmless molecules as well.
Congratulations to Will Dichtel and Brittany Trang. Here's hoping this is a first step to a practical means of destroying PFAS in the environment.