A team of University of NSW researchers are collaborating industry partners to develop sustainable remediation technologies to clean up emerging pollutants including per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
Contaminated sites with high concentrations of fluorinated chemicals, such as the Red Zone surrounding the Williamtown RAAF base, are being identified for the project.
"Although there is no consistent evidence that PFAS exposure is dangerous to humans, concern about the health implications is rapidly growing and in the last few years, legislation has been introduced to limit the amount of PFAS in the environment," Professor Denis O'Carroll from UNSW's Water Research Centre said.
"This is a positive step, but even though the issue is clearly identified, and regulatory agencies are clamping down, the biggest problem is that there is no easy way to neutralise them."
The team's work, which is funded with a $3 million Australian Research Council grant, is focused on two main projects: The first is about generating as much information as possible about the problem and how to utilise biological and chemical approaches to break apart the compounds.
The second is about using that information to create a product or process for deployment in the environment.
The first project is being undertaken in collaboration with Coffey Consulting, a large environmental consulting group.
"Our key focus is to gain a much better understanding of microorganisms and the biogeochemical processes they perform in relation to fluorinated compounds. To do this we are combining our expertise in microbial and geochemical transformation," project leader Professor Mike Manefield said.
"Essentially, we are trying to work out what the limitations are to the destruction of these molecules and find ways around these limitations. We know the carbon-fluorine bond is strong but not unbreakable. We have biochemicals that can do the job. The trick is getting that into a microbe which has the advantage of self-replication."
The second project, led by Professor O'Carroll is being conduced with five industry partners, Orica, Arup, Shimadzu, Enviropacific and the NSW Government.
"In our part of the project, we are hoping to use the information Mike's team is generating to develop and recommend cost-effective, safe and sustainable management and remediation strategies for contaminated sites," Professor O'Carroll said.
"We have only just started, but at this stage, we are optimistic that we'll find workable solutions within the next three years. All of the science makes sense, so our challenge is to transform theory into practice."