WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — After five years of development, the nation’s first high-volume closed-loop PFAS destruction system is up and running in Michigan.
PFASs, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are a category of long-lasting chemical compounds commonly referred to as “forever chemicals.” Scientists are continually learning more about the health impacts of these chemical compounds, which were first developed in the 1940s and incorporated into all sorts of products for waterproofing and heat resistance.
Decades later, research showed that PFAS compounds take a long time to break down organically and can build up in the human body, causing serious health problems including cancer.
The chemical compounds are so widespread that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 99% of all Americans have a detectable level of PFAS in our bodies.
The materials are still manufactured and used. As they are used or thrown away, those chemical compounds end up in our landfills and biosolids. Without treatment, those PFAS compounds recycle through the ecosystem again, in new materials or our groundwater, even in food.
But the country’s first high-volume PFAS destruction system — known as the “PFAS Annihilator” — is aiming to stop that cycle by destroying those compounds.
Heritage-Crystal Clean, a hazardous-waste treatment company, runs the system out of its wastewater facility in Wyoming, Michigan, using technology developed and manufactured through a four-way business partnership between Battelle spin-off Revive Environment, Allonnia, and EPOC Enviro.
How does a ‘PFAS Annihilator work?
Revive Environmental President and CEO David Trueba boiled the process down into three main steps. The facility takes in landfill leachate — essentially rainwater that filters through landfills, collecting chemicals and other contaminants. The raw leachate is pushed through three treatments that separate the PFAS compounds from the leachate. That concentrated material is then run through the “PFAS Annihilator,” which uses super-critical water oxidation, or SCWO, to break the extremely durable PFAS chemical bonds.
The end result is clean water and salts, usually sodium or potassium. The water is then sent to public water treatment facilities to be put back into the water system.
The partnership is called 4never. It is a play on the phrase “forever chemicals” — a common reference for PFAS because the compounds can take years to break down naturally.
Trueba considers the 4never partnership a model to be built upon to truly tackle PFAS contamination.
“I was at a company where we did a lot of great work with media handling. We could (concentrate) the PFAS and the materials, but that media had a solid waste factor. I had to send it to a landfill, a depot injection or an incinerator. That recycles PFAS,” Trueba explained Nexstar’s WOOD. “This PFAS loop was never fully broken. Now, for the first time commercially in North America, Heritage-Crystal Clean has invested in the technology. With the Annihilator and this SAFF technology, we can dispose and eliminate that recycle chain in its tracks.”
SCWO is not a new concept, but using it to destroy PFAS is a recent endeavor. Trueba says the project started in earnest in 2018 — one year after major PFAS contamination was discovered in Michigan’s northern Kent County.
“There was a realization in 2018 with the first real governmental regulatory action and litigation awards that PFAS is not only a near-term problem, but the ubiquitous and large challenge,” Trueba said. “So the leadership at Battelle decided we are going to put a lot of investment in (research and development).”
During that research phase, Battelle settled on super-critical water oxidation as the path forward.
“What this does is it combines high temperature with high pressure, and that environment creates what’s called super-critical water, which essentially means instead of a gas or a liquid, it is both at the same time,” Trueba explained. “Oxygen is completely dissolvable in that solution, and all of the chemicals that would normally be non-compatible with water like oils and greases and organics are fully soluble. That allows the oxygen to attack the carbon-fluorine bonds and completely destroy or annihilate the material in 10 to 30 seconds.”
Heritage-Crystal Clean President and CEO Brian Recatto said PFAS really came onto his radar in 2020.
“Potential customers needed help with leachate and they wanted to know if we could handle PFAS compounds because they were starting to get pushback from publicly owned treatment centers. We obviously said no because we didn’t have any treatment capabilities for PFAS compounds,” Recatto said.
Recatto eventually stumbled onto an article written by a Battelle scientist about SCWO. He cold-called the company trying to learn more, and eventually got the ball rolling.
“We had a super meeting about how we could put this partnership together with our waste treatment facility. That kind of started the dialogue, and a year later we did the pilot,” he said.
The first PFAS Annihilator was tested in 2022 at the Wyoming facility, treating just five gallons at a time. As a proof of concept, the pilot program was a huge success. The past year has been spent on the logistics end, expanding the size of the process to make it cost-effective.
Recatto says the plant currently takes in approximately 100,000 gallons of raw landfill leachate each day — approximately 20 truckloads. That raw leachate generates around 100 gallons of concentrated PFAS material.
The leachate currently comes from three local landfills and varies depending on rainfall. Heritage-Crystal Clean’s goal is to handle 200,000 gallons of raw leachate daily by the end of May.
The ultimate goal, at least for the current system in place, is 500,000 gallons per day.
“We can do 500,000 gallons a day. It could probably go up to 600,000, but that’s with some optimization and manpower as we get more stable. But we are designing units for even larger capacity,” Trueba said.
With the first system up and running, there are two new goals for 4never: tweaking and developing new technology and putting more of these systems to work.
Amy Dindal, the PFAS Program Manager for Battelle, says her team is turning their attention to nonliquid materials.
“Right now, the technology is tuned in on an aqueous or liquid basis, so things like leachate or other liquid matrices. We’re now working on slurries and solids to be able to destroy PFAS in things like soil and other solid materials,” Dindal said.
Recatto said Heritage-Crystal Clean has expansion plans of its own, but the company is committed to the partnership, as well.
“We’ve got additional equipment arriving as we speak. We’ve got two units out in the parking lot now that we are going to move to other locations. We have 11 of these plants scattered around North America with the hope that we will have 20 of them in the next couple of years,” Recatto said. “We are going to follow where the customers take us. If (Battelle) needs logistics help, we’ll go help them in other places. We have labor, we have equipment to move their equipment. And if (Battelle) lands a project with the (Department of Defense) … and needs our help, we’ll certainly help.”