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Alabama Water Institute

UA Researcher Awarded NSF Grant to Investigate PFAS Water Contamination

A new National Science Foundation award is helping researchers from The University of Alabama to study what happens to “forever chemicals” once they enter water reuse treatment plants.

Dr. Leigh Terry has been awarded $195,000 for the NSF Research Infrastructure Improvement Track-4 Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, Research Fellows project. The award will allow Terry and a graduate student to collaborate with The Water Tower institute in Buford, Georgia, to investigate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in a full-scale plant.

“There are lot of unknowns surrounding PFAS, so the study will attempt to close the mass balance of PFAS in the treatment plant by investigating where they go once they enter it,” said Terry, assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering. “For example, do PFAS end up in the sludge or in the effluent liquid that leaves the plant?”

PFAS have been produced since the 1940s in industrial and consumer applications and products due to their desired functionality and production capabilities. They are commonly found in carpets, waterproof coatings, nonstick cookware, fire retardants and similar applications. They are considered “forever chemicals” as they do not naturally degrade in the environment. According to Terry, there are roughly 4,700 PFAS on the global market, yet current research and regulations primarily focus on approximately 30 targeted substances.

“There is an unknown burden of PFAS contamination in our water and wastewater facilities,” she said. “We will investigate a total bulk parameter to measure extractable organic fluorine, or EOF, as a key indicator as all PFAS contain fluorine.”

Terry will work with TWT’s Dr. Chris Impellitteri, director of research and development, and Kristan VandenHeuvel, strategic director of research and engagement. Most of their research will be conducted at TWT’s laboratories and The F. Wayne Hill Wastewater Resources Center, an advanced wastewater treatment facility adjacent to the institute. They will use combustion ion-chromatography, or CIC, and liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry, or LC-MS/MS, which are characterization tools to measure EOF and targeted PFAS.

From there, the work will be brought back to UA where these tools will also be used in their water quality lab for sample verification and validation. The results will be used to build upon and merge into ongoing research activities and graduate and undergraduate course curriculum, an important component for both UA and the NSF.

“Academic research on water-related issues, while groundbreaking and innovative, can often be isolated from the wealth of practical knowledge held by the industry and practitioners,” Terry said. “It is thrilling to be able to work to close this gap on an issue that is prevalent and not going away anytime soon.”

A substantial societal benefit of the project will be the lowered expense for states and utilities with limited resources. An accurate total EOF method is less expensive than targeted PFAS analysis. The upfront, sample preparation and technician training costs are also significantly less for total versus targeted PFAS methods. “Targeted analysis by LC-MS/MS only provides data on the compounds in the method and may only account for a small fraction of the total PFAS, including precursors, in the sample,” said Terry. “Utilities and states can measure total EOF as an indicator of targeted PFAS at a much more affordable rate.”

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