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CE's Choi Receives Grant to Rid Water of PFCs

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Because they are excellent at repelling both water and oil, perfluorated chemicals are widely used in applications such as non-stick cookware, stain repellants for carpets, clothes, and furniture, and fire retardants. However, these chemicals may cause cancer and hardly decompose after being introduced into the environment, significantly contaminating water resources.

Hyeok ChoiHyeok Choi, an associate professor of civil engineering at The University of Texas at Arlington, will use a $95,127 grant from the Water Environment and Reuse Foundation to prove a concept that would allow scientists to efficiently transform PFCs such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) into chemicals that could be broken down easily and with as little expense as possible.

“I’m looking for a practical, strategic method to eliminate PFOS from the environment. This is very important, because if I’m successful this method can be applied to many other persistent chemicals and help make our drinking water safer,” Choi said.

PFCs have been the target of many recent federal regulations in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency reported in 2016 that PFCs found in the drinking water supplies of 6 million U.S. residents exceeded health risk levels. In spite of increased attention from federal agencies, water and health authorities and industry, no effective technologies have emerged to eliminate the health risks posed by PFCs such as PFOS, which is extremely stable and persistent due to the strong carbon-fluorine bonds it contains. 

Choi will use a process known as defluorination, which replaces fluorine molecules with hydrogen and others, weakening the chemical bonds and making the substance vulnerable to decomposition through other subsequent means. He will use a chemical reduction technique to remove fluorine, and then apply a chemical oxidization process to accelerate the decomposition of PFOS. This process would allow water and health authorities, water utilities, and industrial companies to deal with PFC-contaminated water more efficiently with limited operating budgets.

“Companies have tried to develop environmentally-friendly options for these chemicals, but they result in a toxic chemical that also hardly decomposes. I will use this grant to prove that my technology will work, which will hopefully lead to further federal funding down the road that will allow me to study the problem in more depth,” Choi said.

Choi’s work is an example of UTA’s work to advance Global Environmental Impact under the Strategic Plan 2020: Bold Solutions | Global Impact.

Choi joined UTA in 2009 after two years as a postdoctoral fellow with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. His research has focused on environmental monitoring and removal of toxic chemicals in water, and has been funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, U.S. Geological Survey, and Texas Higher Educational Coordinating Board.

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