Air Force tests plasma reactor to destroy ‘forever chemicals’ in contaminated groundwater

The Air Force is testing a plasma reactor to destroy harmful chemical compounds in contaminated groundwater.

The manmade compounds, which are called per- and polyfluoroalykyl substances, or PFAS, have seeped into groundwater at a number of military bases as a result of their former use in firefighting foam. The compounds, which have also been used in a number of commercial and industrial products, have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they do not break down.

Last year the Department of Defense published a list of military installations that have water near or around them containing harmful levels of PFAS. Earlier this year New Mexico sued the Air Force over groundwater contamination at two bases.

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In an attempt to tackle the problem of groundwater contamination, the Air Force has been testing an innovative plasma reactor to “degrade and destroy” perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOS and PFOA, in groundwater. PFOS and PFOA are the most researched compounds in the PFAS group, according to the Air Force.

“PFOS and PFOA were components of a legacy firefighting foam the Air Force and others began using in the 1970s to extinguish petroleum-based fires,” the Air Force explained in a statement. “That firefighting foam has since been phased out by the Air Force.”

Civilian researchers recently completed a two-week field demonstration of a specially-built plasma reactor at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. The Enhanced Contact Plasma Reactor is a closed system that uses water, electricity and argon gas to degrade PFOS and PFOA in minutes, according to the Air Force, which is working with Clarkson University and GSI Environmental on the project.

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“We are trying to destroy or degrade PFAS impacted groundwater using electrical discharge plasma,” said Selma Mededovic, Ph.D., of Clarkson University, the project’s principal investigator, in the statement. “The argon gas concentrates PFAS at the gas-liquid interface, and plasma is generated at that interface, which then destroys PFAS.”

Through several cycles, the plasma reduces the PFAS molecule chain into smaller compounds and elements, the researchers say, adding that no additional chemicals or additives are needed.

“This is the only technology that actually destroys PFAS molecules that has been demonstrated at this scale. It doesn’t just remove them from water,” said Tom Holsen, Ph.D., of Clarkson University, the project’s co-principal investigator. “All of the other demonstrations that we’re aware of remove it from the water through filtration so there is still a PFAS containing waste. Our method actually destroys PFAS.”

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During the demo, water was drawn from two monitoring wells at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base fire training area. Hundreds of gallons of groundwater were treated.

The next stage of the project is a detailed analysis of the treated groundwater and evaluating “scaling up” of the reactor design.

“PFOS/PFOA is a national issue, and research like this could lead to the breakthroughs we need to address potential contamination,” Mark Correll, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, energy and the environment, said in the statement.

In its statement, the Air Force noted that drinking water at Wright-Patterson AFB is tested regularly “and contains PFOS/PFOA well below the EPA lifetime health advisory level.”

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