Go with the flow
They are called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. But they are known by a much simpler and more unsettling nickname.
“They’re nicknamed ‘eternal chemicals’ because they don’t break down in nature,” said Orren Schneider, chief science officer of the Hadley-based startup known as Aclarity. “The bonds in them are so strong that hardly anything natural breaks them. Maybe if you hit them with lightning, they’ll break down.
Lightning isn’t exactly a feasible solution. But Aclarity — which has been making waves (no pun intended) in the water industry with its new electrochemical approach to tackling pollutants — offers a better one.
“We can actually destroy these compounds and break them down into their component parts,” Schneider told BusinessWest. “There is a lot of focus at the state level – and also from the federal level – on how to remove these compounds from the environment.
“The reason they’re there is because they’re incredibly useful in so many different consumer and industrial products,” he explained. “Scotchgard, for example. They are also used in fire fighting foam to help extinguish fires. They are used on pizza boxes and Chinese food containers. So they’re very useful, and those same properties that make them useful make them hard to break down. Right now, our main focus is how to break them down? »
Several years ago, BusinessWest told the first part of Aclarity’s story, how CEO Julie Bliss Mullen, as part of her doctoral research, discovered an electrochemical technology that could treat water by passing it through a small electrical current to destroy contaminants.
“They’re called ‘eternal chemicals’ because they don’t break down in nature. The bonds in them are so strong that hardly anything natural breaks them.
It immediately stood out from other solutions on the market both for the absence of waste generated and for its versatility. So in 2017, she co-founded Aclarity, which won first prize in the UMass Innovation Challenge, claiming $26,000 in seed capital to help get the company started.
Essentially, she explains, electricity is applied to an anode and a cathode, water is circulated through the reactor, and contaminants are destroyed by strong oxidants such as free electrons (which break PFAS bonds), hydroxyl radicals, ozone and chlorine that are generated inside. of the Aclarity reactor. The result is harmless byproducts – essentially water free of PFAS and other harmful contaminants.
“Think of a battery,” Schneider said. “You have electrodes in there, and it takes chemical energy and turns it into electrical energy. We do the opposite. We put electrical current through the electrodes and the chemistry happens. What we’re trying to do, it’s to break down a lot of different chemicals that are in the water, and most of the ones we’re focusing on right now are PFAS.
Aclarity is not the only company trying to develop a viable and scalable solution for this type of water pollution, he added. “The first company able to market a product capable of destroying these compounds will be the big winner. And we think we’re ahead there. We know the technology works, and now we’re just trying to figure out how to make a product that we can sell to do it.
Water, water everywhere
Schneider said the original product was just a small reactor that could handle a few gallons per minute, which proved the technology.
“We’ve used this with potential customers to analyze samples, run water through them, to show them what we can do,” he said, adding that Aclarity recently built the next stage, going from a single electrode to 10 electrodes in a reactor. , and which is used to show potential customers that the system works.
“We are currently working with landfills; we will start a project in Warren at the end of August with one of these pilot units,” he noted. “Leachate from a landfill looks like Guinness beer when it comes out – dirty, dark brown. We turn it into something that looks a little more like Coors Light. organic compounds, things like ammonia and PFAS. Landfill leachate is an ideal application for us because it’s very high concentration and relatively low volumes. It really helps our economy.
Aclarity is also starting a pilot system in North Carolina at a water treatment plant, working with an engineering company there. “Levels of PFAS found in drinking water are generally quite low, and existing technologies work well to remove them,” Schneider explained, but not to destroy them. So after small volumes of PFAS are separated from water using membranes and a technology called foam fractionation, Aclarity will be on hand to try to destroy these compounds.
“The first company able to market a product capable of destroying these compounds will be the big winner. And we think we’re ahead there.
“You probably won’t see us bolted to the end of a water treatment plant,” Schneider said. “In New York, their little system processes 290 million gallons a day. Their big system, over a billion gallons. We just can’t process that much. But this particular plant processes about 20 million gallons of water a day, and when you concentrate it through froth splitting, you could drop to 20,000 gallons, and at that level that’s something we can deal with. It is therefore a combination of concentration technologies followed by destructive technologies.
Meanwhile, in northern Italy, Aclarity is working with a textile factory, treating PFAS at the factory rather than letting it escape into the environment and having to worry about treating it there- down,” Schneider explained.
“Another area we are looking at is Department of Defense bases and firefighting academies. Many of these compounds are found in fire fighting foam. They spray it, and it sheds oxygen and resists high heat, but then you have this lagoon of water that is highly contaminated. So we plan to build a mobile treatment system where we can step in, treat the lagoon for as long as needed, and then move on to the next site. »
Schneider said Aclarity is looking for someone like him who knows the water industry — he’s been in it for 35 years — and understands these technologies. And he was intrigued by the potential of Bliss Mullen’s startup.
“There are other emerging destructive technologies, but, putting on my scientist cap, my engineer cap, I have my doubts about some of them, about their ability to evolve or about the amount of energy that they will use or on the materials that are mandatory.I follow the trends of new technologies coming out, and I think electrochemical is the next one that will really change and emerge from the lab into something that will become commercially viable.
“It’s one of the reasons I joined Aclarity. None of our existing technologies deal with PFAS really well,” he continued. “We can take it out of the water, but we just transfer it to something else, whether it’s a more concentrated stream of water or granular activated carbon or ion exchange, but then , what do we do with it? He is always there. Electrochemistry is promising; we show that we can actually destroy these compounds and render them harmless.
This result, on a large scale, would change the lives of many, Schneider said. And that starts with an increasingly sophisticated ability to detect water pollution.
“I use this line a lot: one of the best things I learned in high school was that the number one cause of pollution is analytical equipment. This means that if we can’t measure something, we don’t know it’s there. Our measurement technologies are equivalent to a blade of grass in Central Park. It is very good; we can find so many things, and we see adverse health effects from these compounds.
“The goal is not just to suppress them, but to be able to destroy them at very low levels,” he continued. “We can destroy things down to the detection limits that we currently have, and there’s no scientific reason to think we can’t go even lower. It’s just a matter of how much money it’s going to cost and how much electricity it’s going to use. But the science is there.
He is enthusiastic about the flexibility and adaptability of Aclarity’s process.
“Although we are currently focused on PFAS, there is a whole market that we can potentially address. Also, in things like landfills, because we can address multiple contaminants at the same time, it just makes us more profitable. So rather than having tech A for this compound, tech B for that, we can process both at the same time, so hopefully we can be not just a solution, but a cost-effective, go-to solution.
After all, Schneider said, until PFAS are out of the manufacturing stream and out of the environment — and that day seems a long way off, to say the least — there will be a need. technologies like Aclarity. “But there will always be something else. The beauty of our technology is that it works for so many different things.
The key to advancing ideas like this and making them marketable is cooperation between government and the private sector, he added.
“We are a small business. We want to be the industry leader, but it will take a lot of different people, different technologies, different ideas to find a solution to this problem. We need government support to help drive this; if there’s no regulation, people won’t pay to do things they don’t have to.
His advice to world leaders?
“Listen to the public. It’s one of the few environmental issues where it’s not just caught up in science; the public is aware and wants things done. So it will take cooperation between the public, private industry and government, all coming together to help solve this big problem.
“We are not a solution looking for a problem,” Schneider added. “We want to be part of solving this problem. I am a big believer in public health and the environment. Otherwise, I wouldn’t. » you
Joseph Bednar can be reached at