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New PFAS-annihilating technology set to destroy toxic chemicals in Ohio's firefighting foams

The exterior of the PFAS Annihilator
The exterior of Revive Environmental Technology's PFAS Annihilator exposes PFAS-contaminated material to high heat and pressure to break the carbon-fluorine bond and leave behind a nontoxic byproduct.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine is partnering with Columbus-based company Battelle to destroy stockpiles of toxic firefighting foams containing forever chemicals, also known as PFAS.

The collaborative Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) Takeback Program, announced Monday, includes the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the State Fire Marshal's Office and Battelle. The partnership will use Battelle's PFAS Annihilator to destroy the aqueous foam and PFAS-contaminated wastewater to "non-detectable levels" according to the news release.

"Until now, fire departments have had no way to safely dispose of this toxic foam," DeWine said in the news release. "With this new program, we'll now be able to completely destroy AFFF to prevent dangerous exposure to PFAS and avoid environmental contamination."

The AFFF firefighting foams have some of the highest concentrations of PFAS and can contaminate areas where the foam is used, said David Trueba, president and CEO of Revive Environmental Technology, a spinoff company of Battelle responsible for the distribution of the PFAS Annihilator.

"When a fire happens and that foam is used, that foam is then put into the ground wherever that activity was, and you start to have groundwater contamination of AFFF."

Read more: What's in your walleye? Studies have found forever chemicals in Ohio's freshwater fish

Three containers showing samples pre and post treatment labeled "raw leachate," "pretreated" and "discharge effluent" from left to right.
Samples taken from the PFAS-contaminated material before and after annihilation. The PFAS Annihilator uses extreme heat and pressure to destroy contamination at the source, with the goal of preventing contamination from spreading when the material is disposed of.

For this reason, Battelle aims to find and destroy PFAS at the source, to prevent spreading contamination elsewhere, Battelle Environment Division Manager Amy Dindal said.

"When you talk about landfill leachate and garbage that's thrown out, ... or chemical industries or firefighting foam from airports or what have you. It's coming from all different sources," she said. "That's why the Annihilator technology is focused on destroying it at the source, so it never gets into the drinking water."

Before the launch of the PFAS Annihilator end of 2022, many companies that aimed to phase out the use of AFFF firefighting foam had no way to dispose of the foam without spreading contamination, Trueba said.

"You would send it to a landfill or you would move it to a different, maybe disadvantaged community where it wasn't generated, but it still has the PFAS challenges for human health," he said. "Now we have a technology that can then augment existing remediation work, existing media, that closes the loop and destroys the PFAS, and puts it back into what we call its elemental or original state."

PFAS, are commonly used chemicals found in things like food packaging, nonstick cookware and water-proof makeup, but have links to health effects like high cholesterol, low birthweight and cancer.

Read more: ‘Forever chemicals’ are everywhere. How worried should we be?

Through a process called supercritical water oxidation, the PFAS Annihilator exposes AFFF firefighting foams and other PFAS-contaminated material to extreme heat and pressure — 3,200 pounds per square inch of pressure and 600 degrees Celsius to be exact — in order to break the molecular carbon-fluorine bond that makes PFAS so durable.

"The carbon-fluorine bond is the strongest in chemistry," Trueba said. "The strength of the bond does two things: One, it means it's really useful. That's why we've used the chemistry for the last 80 years. It's also very difficult to get rid of."

The interior of the Revive Environmental Technology's PFAS Annihilator with treatment bases and power panels.
The interior of the Revive Environmental Technology's PFAS Annihilator, that exposes PFAS-contaminated material to high heat and pressure to break the carbon-fluorine bond and leave behind a nontoxic byproduct.

When the bond is broken, the chemical compounds of PFAS are returned to their original state, leaving behind a nonhazardous byproduct.

"When you break it, then it becomes elemental fluorine, which then again you add for health benefits and the water, so it becomes inert," Trueba said. "That's the goal here is to repurpose the elements that have been used for PFAS into inert substances that can then be in contact with humans safely."

The Annihilator is used in tandem with other technologies that absorb the PFAS to remove them from contaminated sites, Trueba said. But absorption and destruction are two different things, Dindal said.

"The bottom line is the absorbents aren't destroying the PFAS. They're moving them out of the water, and they're containing them on something else and creating another PFAS-contaminated material," Dindal said. "It's not solving the problem, which is why Battelle was focused on destroying PFAS from the beginning."

The company's long-term goals are to provide a solution to PFAS contamination, ensure that drinking water remains safe and spread awareness about Revive's new technology, Trueba said.

"There's now [a] solution," he said. "There can be a little bit of hope to say, 'yeah, there's actually solutions that my local community leaders can employ to help with the PFAS problem.'"

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.