System to ‘annihilate’ PFAS chemicals deployed in Michigan

Developers say they’re interested in bringing the technology to Wisconsin

By: - June 27, 2023 5:45 am

The inside of the the PFAS Annihilator system, which developers say can chemically break apart PFAS into salts, water and carbon dioxide. (Photo courtesy of Battelle)

“Forever chemical” has become a widespread nickname for man-made chemicals like per and poly-fluroalkyl substances (PFAS). The same qualities that made them perfect for non-stick food wrappers and firefighting foam also made them unnaturally persistent in the environment.

The developers of a new technology say they’ve come up with a way to take the “forever” out of PFAS.

The technology comes from Battelle, an independent, nonprofit technology research and development group based in Columbus, Ohio. It has been developed for practical use by Revive Environmental of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and it’s now in operation, dubbed the PFAS Annihilator at Heritage-Crystal Clean, an industrial waste treatment and disposal business, at the company’s Grand Rapids-area facility.

A PFAS advisory sign along Starkweather Creek. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

David Trueba, Revive Environmental’s president and CEO, says the system is the first commercial solution of its kind for cleaning up PFAS contamination. “Our mission is to globally restore communities’ confidence by safely and permanently destroying PFAS contamination,” he says.

When officials from Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), first visited the Heritage Crystal Clean Grand Rapids facility, they displayed “a bit of skepticism on the front end, you know, not really understanding what we were doing,” recalled Brian Recatto, the president and CEO of Heritage Crystal Clean. “They wanted us to do a bit more modeling as we installed the equipment, which we did, to prove that we didn’t need an air permit.”

Since then, both Recatto and Trueba say that feedback has been increasingly positive. “They [Michigan state officials] love the fact that we’re destroying the contaminants versus transferring the contaminants,” said Recatto.

A spokesman for EGLE confirmed that the agency has visited the facility, but said the agency could not assess its performance.

“This is new technology and EGLE hasn’t reviewed it (we haven’t seen any performance data yet) thoroughly enough to comment on it,” EGLE spokesman Scott Dean told Wisconsin Examiner in an email message.

Developers of the PFAS Annihilator system say that it uses high heat and water pressure to chemically break apart PFAS into salts, water and carbon dioxide. (Photo courtesy of Battelle)

Dean said the agency has determined the operations are regulated under a permit from the city of Wyoming, the Grand Rapids suburb where the facility is located, “which sets enforceable limits for discharges to the City’s wastewater treatment plant.”  After the agency reviewed the plant and conducted a site visit, EGLE told the company in an April 27 letter that it “expects [Heritage Crystal Clean] to demonstrate proper operation of its systems in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations and to support EGLE as we perform our oversight of the facility’s operations.”

The PFAS Annihilator includes tanks and equipment capable of heating the contents to more than 500 degrees Celsius — about 932 degrees Fahrenheit. Leachate — the concentrated, PFAS-contaminated liquid — goes into the system, where it is heated to at least 374 degrees celsius (705 degrees Fahrenheit).

How does it work?

How does the PFAS Annihilator actually do what its name implies? Trueba explained that standard pumps in the system increase the pressure of the leachate to over 3,000 psi.

“And that temperature-pressure combination forces a couple of really interesting dynamics,” Trueba told Wisconsin Examiner. “PFAS is usually an oil, water is water, so they don’t mix. In addition, you need oxygen to get in that mix, and that’s very difficult. When you get to super-critical water conditions, water is no longer a liquid or a gas.” The process makes organics and oxygen easier to dissolve.

A container holds water that has been treated to eliminate PFAS chemicals in the PFAS Annihilator system. (Photo courtesy of Battelle)

“Now we’ve had a state where in 10-30 seconds, we can cleave or destroy all carbon-fluorine molecules — the strongest in chemistry — very quickly with complete, repeatable destruction across the spectrum of PFAS compounds,” Trueba said. “So, in a nutshell, that’s what we do … we use temperature and pressure to create an environment that completely annihilates PFAS.”

The chemicals break down into water, salt, and carbon dioxide, he said. After that, the water is then recycled back into the system it came from.

Recatto said the facility’s daily capacity is expected to be 160,000 to 165,000 gallons of leachate. More PFAS Annihilator systems were being installed at the time he spoke with the Examiner.

He estimated the wastewater treatment plant will be sending “a couple hundred gallons a day of concentrated material to be processed in the Annihilator.” Revive Environmental plans to take other contaminated compounds, such as firefighting foam, processing about 500 gallons a day from various sources.

A journey towards PFAS annihilation

Developing the technology began in 2019, as Heritage Crystal Clean started looking into how PFAS could be destroyed. The company tried reverse osmosis and carbon filtration, “all of which worked to a certain degree but didn’t destroy the PFAS contaminants and ultimately left us with a media that we had to deal with by taking it to a landfill, which we didn’t like,” he said.

A worker loads concentrated PFAS-contaminated leachate into the PFAS Annihilator system. (Photo courtesy of Battelle)

As the COVID-19 pandemic ground the world to a halt in 2020, Recatto noticed an article by Battelle, the Ohio industrial research nonprofit, that discussed supercritical water oxidation destruction. He  reached out to Battelle to learn more.

“We felt like we needed a complete turn-key solution to solve the large-volume wastewater problem,” said Recatto. A partnership with other companies was formed called 4never, which worked on commercial application of the technology, which led to it being installed at the Grand Rapids facility.

Recatto said there are talks with potential customers that could bring the PFAS Annihilator to Wisconsin, but no immediate opportunities yet. The technology is also being further improved upon. So far, the Annihilator can only handle liquids — not, for example, PFAS-contaminated sludge collected by wastewater treatment facilities.

Trueba said research and development is being done to expand the kinds of PFAS contaminated material the Annihiliator can process. “We’re going to get very good at liquid waste streams for now,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. Once it has established the success of the technology, the firm will look for nearby places or applications to use it.

Interest and questions from Wisconsin environmental groups

The PFAS Annihilator system (Photo courtesy of Battelle)

Some environmental groups in the state have expressed curiosity about the PFAS Annihilator. In a statement responding to a Wisconsin Examiner inquiry, Clean Wisconsin said that while advances in technology are welcome, they underscore the need to stop using PFAS in the first place.

Even when water treatment results in greater than 99% reduction, the remaining water still has PFOS and PFOA levels above the proposed federal ceiling, the group noted. PFOS and PFOA are two of the most widespread and best understood PFAS chemicals, the group said in a statement. Those “forever chemicals” have been linked to cancers, birth defects, thyroid disorders, and other chronic diseases in humans and other animal species, the organization’s statement said.

Trueba said that “like any industrial water, this water is safe enough to put back into the water treatment facility in Wyoming, Michigan, for water purification and reclamation. No industrial waste water (post initial processing) is safe for human consumption until it goes through the local water treatment facility, in this case the city of Wyoming.”

A tanker truck unloads PFAS-contaminated concentrated wastewater leachate into the PFAS Annihilator system. (Photo courtesy of Battelle)

“PFAS contamination is an urgent problem that requires a comprehensive set of solutions,” said Peg Sheaffer, spokesperson for Midwest Environmental Advocates, in a statement. “We are hopeful that technologies like this can be brought to scale and effectively deployed in Wisconsin. At the same time, it’s critical that we continue to investigate sources of PFAS contamination so that we can stem the flow of these toxic chemicals into our environment.”

Sheaffer also raised the question of who will pay the cost of treatment such as the Annihilator is intended to provide.

“Companies that are found responsible for the contamination should be held accountable, and they — not the taxpayers — should have to bear the cost of remediation,” she said.


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.