Rice selected for U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Desalination and Water Purification Research program

Rice researchers receive funding to dispose of ‘forever chemicals,’ purify water.

Michael Wong headshot

Researchers at Rice are among the eight recipients of $2.2 million in funding from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to develop ways to dispose of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) using light and photocatalysis.

“PFAS are known as ‘forever chemicals.’ Compared to the various treatment options being studied, photocatalytic oxidation has the advantage of needing no additional reagents, and needing only a light source,” said Michael Wong, the Tina and Sunit Patel Professor in Molecular Nanotechnology and chair of the chemical and biomolecular engineering department.

For almost a century, PFAS have been widely used in coatings, chemical and materials processing, and firefighting foams, and are ubiquitous in the environment. High levels of PFAS in humans have been associated with various health problems, including cancer, low fertility rates, ulcerative colitis, and thyroid disease.

The Bureau of Reclamation selected Rice as one of two universities for federal funding in its Desalination and Water Purification Research program. Their goal is to develop technologies that convert unusable water resources into usable water.

The Rice project is titled “PFAS Destruction in Saline Waters Using a Boron Nitride-enabled Photocatalytic Reactor Pilot,” and its share of the funding is $523,214.

“We will demonstrate a scale-up of boron nitride (BN)-based photocatalysts that have excellent potential for low-cost, salt-resistant, chemical-free PFAS destruction to be incorporated with the reverse osmosis (RO)-based reclamation systems,” said Youngkun Chung, postdoctoral research associate in Wong’s research group.

The BN-based materials photocatalytically degrade PFAS in brackish water, including its salinity and dissolved organic carbon. The researchers will further evaluate this strategy at the pilot scale. They will investigate whether pre-treating brackish groundwater or post-treating RO concentrate streams water for PFAS can reduce the expense and increase the energy efficiency of disposal in water reclamation systems.

Wong’s research efforts to treat and destroy PFAS are supported by the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program of the U.S. Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.