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Persistent Pollutants

US research challenge focuses on PFAS foam destruction without incineration

by Cheryl Hogue
August 28, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 33


Photo shows two firefighters in protective gear surrounded up to their waists in firefighting foam.
Credit: US Department of Defense
A prize of up to $50,000 awaits the designer of a concept to break down PFAS-containing foam without using incineration.

The US government and several states are offering researchers up to $50,000 to design novel ways to destroy per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)in firefighting foams. The scientific innovation challenge, announced by the Environmental Protection Agency on Aug. 25, is focused on nonthermal destruction of PFAS-containing firefighting foams through methods that create the smallest amount of hazardous by-products. Winners may have the opportunity to field test their concepts in partnership with the EPA and the Department of Defense’s Environmental Security Technology Certification Program. For decades, PFAS were ingredients in film-forming foams used to douse fires on liquids such as oil. But these chemicals do not completely degrade in the environment for centuries, and some are toxic and bioaccumlative. Recent, preliminary data suggest that incineration does not break down PFAS in foams but actually spreads the substances in the environment. In a military spending bill for fiscal 2020, Congress ordered the DOD to dispose of fluorinated firefighting foams without releasing PFAS and to use methods demonstrated to break down these chemicals.


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