OLEOLOGY can remove PFAS contaminants to below detectable levels, while bridging the gap between environmental regulation, communities and commercial interest. Director Paul Callaghan explains.
In February last year, an in-principal settlement of $212.5 million was reached between the Federal Government and residents of three communities that had their groundwater contaminated by toxic firefighting foams containing PFAS used at defence bases until the early 2000s.
Documents released by the Federal Court showed that $92.5 million would be paid to residents of Katherine in the Northern Territory, with a further $86 million awarded to the community of Williamtown, NSW, and $34 million awarded to the people of Oakey in Queensland’s Darling Downs.
Similar PFAS actions have taken place across the world. In January this year, for example, DuPont, Chemours and Corteva chemical companies announced a cost-sharing agreement worth $4 billion to settle lawsuits involving the historic use of PFAS chemicals in the United States.
While this was welcome news to plaintiffs, ongoing clean-ups and the haunting health concerns of PFAS are far from settled.
PFAS – per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances – are a group of over 6000 human-made organoﬂuorine compounds that have been heavily used in household and industrial applications since the 1930s.
Also known as ‘Forever Chemicals’ due to their persistency in the environment and human tissue, PFAS chemicals contain one or more carbon atoms whose carbon-hydrogen bonds are replaced by carbon-fluorine bonds.
The carbon-fluorine bonds are the shortest and strongest chemical bonds, thus its chemical reactive stability and persistency.
Much like plastic, PFAS’ strength and versatility has proved extremely valuable to industry and manufacturing.
Though unlike plastic, PFAS chemicals have shown to be powerful endocrine disruptors that have long-term impacts on human-health and the environment.
The problem of PFAS has been widely discussed among experts in the waste, water and remediation sectors in recent years. However, according to OLEOLOGY Director Paul Callaghan, the level of risk associated with these Forever Chemicals is not yet widely understood.
That said, cost blow-outs on Melbourne’s West Gate Tunnel project and surrounding controversies around treatment and disposal options are foregrounding the complex issue, with PFAS slowly entering mainstream consciousness.
“PFAS is used in just about every industry. It’s a fascinating product that was developed in the 1930s by accident. What makes PFAS chemicals so unique is they have a double bond, which is the strongest atomic bond known to humankind,” Paul says.
“That double bond, which gives it all its great properties in terms of industry application, also makes it extremely difficult to remove.”
Referencing the aforementioned communities of Katherine, Williamtown and Oakey, Paul says PFAS contamination moved at such a rate that it had created a plume – a mixture of waste chemicals, leachate and groundwater.
“The affected zones had moved with a relatively high level of ground water, and as a result, when the grasses, trees and other natural life took their nutrients from the ground, they also took in PFAS contamination,” he says.
“Those life-forms, be its plants or vegetables, grow and are harvested. We then end up eating them, or livestock eats them, and it goes into their system. And following the food cycle, we end up eating the livestock and taking in that contamination.”
Saasha Callaghan, OLEOLOGY Technical and Marketing Manager, explains that PFAS contamination is so ubiquitous that traces of the chemicals have been found in Antarctica.
There are no know natural sources of PFAS, she adds, so their presence in the environment is due solely to human-made activity.
At an AOG Energy Expo presentation last year, Saasha explained that PFAS chemicals not only impact human hormones and fertility, but have links to liver, kidney, ovarian and testicular cancer.
Saasha’s presentation, The invisible enemy affecting your health, went on to detail PFAS’ effects on the food chain via water and soil health, as well as their impact on the spawning of fish at hatcheries across Australia.
“Certain hatcheries are having issues spawning their fish, they’re actually going bankrupt because their fish cannot reproduce,” Saasha said at AOG.
“It’s called the Forever Chemical as it’s a bioaccumulating compound that will stay in your system and is very hard to break down.”
A 2019 study published in Emerging Contaminants – a journal which publishes world-leading research on environmental contamination caused by emerging contaminants – reported that a suite of PFAS’ were found in the livers of killer wales, polar bears and seals.
The study notes that diet is the most significant PFAS pathway, with polar bears subsisting on a high marine proportion diet having higher PFAS concentration than those surviving on a terrestrial diet.
Saasha expounds that the pervasiveness of PFAS in the natural environment comes down to a number of factors. Namely, the fact that PFAS chemicals have excellent heat, chemical and thermal stability and are stain, water and dirt repellent.
As such, the chemicals are used in a wide variety of products and processes, such as soil, water and oil repellent treatments for carpets, stain repellent treatments for textiles and leather, in waxes, polishes, paints, adhesives, pesticides and non-stick cookware and packaging.
PFAS chemicals are also used industrially as aviation hydraulic fluid, for metal plating, circuit board manufacturing and oil and gas production, and perhaps most notably, in firefighting foams.
Saasha adds that while industry is highly concerned about hydrocarbons, they naturally breakdown relatively quickly, whereas PFAS takes up to 90 years to break down in the environment.
OLEOLOGY, a family-owned operation based in Perth, Western Australia, was started by Paul in 2002.
The company offers advanced oil and hydrocarbon removal solutions that seek to make recycling and decontaminating water, quicker, simpler and more cost-effective.
In 2006, OLEOLOGY diversified – committing in-house research and development to PFAS contaminants and the removal of all analytes and precursors.
OLEOLOGY’s involvement in PFAS research and removal occurred via happenstance, Paul says, when the company was working at Perth Airport to remove hydrocarbons from groundwater after an underground fuel tank began leaking.
While working on the project, Airservices Australia asked Paul if OLEOLOGY could remove PFAS in addition to the hydrocarbons.
“I said, I don’t know what PFAS is, but I’ll try,” he explains.
Paul and his team soon found that they could remove PFAS and set to work refining their system. Airservices Australia, which functions much like a government utility and runs firefighter training at air terminals across the country, then asked OLEOLOGY to conduct similar trials at Launceston Airport.
“We spent a few months in Launceston; ran trials and further refined our filtration sequence and system. We then provided Airservices Australia with equipment to run an independent trail through their environmental consultants BECA,” Paul says.
“The information and data gleaned from that trail was then used by the head of Airservices Australia when talking about what they were doing to clean up groundwater contamination at the 2016 Senate Estimate Committee in Canberra.”
After the Inquiry closed in 2018, the Federal Government Sub Committee made nine recommendations to improve its response to PFAS contamination.
Recommendations included establishing a Coordinator-General with the authority and resources to effectively coordinate efforts to reduce PFAS contamination and ensure consistent regulatory approaches; and improvements to voluntary blood testing programs to be used as a source of longitudinal information on the health effects of PFAS exposure and effective methods to break PFAS exposure pathways.
Since its happenstance entry into the complex world of PFAS, OLEOLOGY has developed an internationally recognised technology capable of removing PFAS from water to achieve non-detectable levels.
The treatment system developed by OLEOLOGY incorporates the MyCelx technology, which binds to PFAS compounds to remove them permanently from water.
The system, which can also remove all testable PFAS analytes in 1/20th of the footprint of traditional methods, greatly reduces waste volumes, with dry waste thermally oxidised to five per cent of its original mass.
This in turn significantly reduces waste transport and disposal costs, with the system producing, on average, just one pallet of waste each year.
According to Dr Jimmy Seow, ENVIRON Director and Adjunct Professor at Murdoch and Curtin Universities, while other companies can remove PFAS from water, OLEOLOGY’s technology, process and system has a competitive advantage.
He explains that OLEOLOGY’s absorption media can remove PFAS, oil in water, organics, heavy metals and other contaminants via a single MyCelx cartridge.
“Other people can remove PFAS using granular activated carbon (GAC) or Ion Exchange (IX), but they need another process stage to remove the oil, organics and heavy metals. OLEOLOGY can do that in a one stop shop – that’s the really exciting part.”
Dr Seow has over 30 years’ experience working in industry, government and research, and is widely considered the authoritative voice on PFAS issues across Australasia.
“OLEOLOGY’s technology can remove PFAS from wastewater down to commercial lab non-detect levels,” Dr Seow says.
“I’ve seen a lot of competitors, but their technology really stands out and generates very little waste.”
OLEOLOGY’s PFAS Water Treatment System can achieve compliance with government and environmental regulators, Paul adds, thereby removing future liability from clients and stakeholders.
“PFAS attaches itself to soil and gradually leaches out of the soil into water. It is highly soluble,” he says.
“In a wastewater treatment plant, for example, water is coming in from a variety of sources. And if you’re not removing PFAS contaminants, it will travel through the discharge and end up in the ocean.”
Conventional methods of PFAS removal such as GAC and IX remove PFAS, oil and hydrocarbons from water by mechanical separation or in combination with chemical injection.
This approach requires a long sequence of steps, Paul says, and is prone to system failures and bottlenecks.
“Conventional water treatment plants that rely on GAC and IX for PFAS removal only work for a short period of water treatment time before breakthrough occurs,” he explains.
“The residual hydrocarbon in the groundwater quickly overloads the GAC – saturating and breaking through the media, which leads to premature failure of the PFAS water polishing.”
When the composition or loading of oil and hydrocarbons change, these systems can release oil back into the stream.
Furthermore, the adsorption media generates significant waste in the form of sludge and solids. The solids are generally treated via combustion; however, sludge is more difficult to transport and treat.
Conversely, the MyCelx technology doesn’t just mechanically filter or separate PFAS, oil or heavy metals, but rather permanently binds with the contaminates through molecular cohesion. Once the contaminants come in contact with MyCelx, they cannot be released back into the water.
“MyCelx filtering media cartridges are hydrophobic – after filtering PFAS from the water, the cartridges are safely handled, stored and transported as a dry waste, preferably disposed of by thermal destruction with no lingering or contingent liability associated with burial,” Paul says.
He points to a hypothetical waste and water treatment company example, noting that treated water is discharged to the sewer under license conditions set by the regional water utility. Once the water utility is aware of PFAS being discharged, further licence conditions are added.
The license change increases the range of water analysed for discharge to sewer from parts per million to include PFAS with maximum discharge limits set at parts per trillion, Paul says, resulting in significant differences between contaminant levels previously compliant and the new PFAS level of compliance.
Efficient analysis of the removal of PFAS is conducted by a TOPA test and OLEOLOGY has proven the removal of all PFAS analytes by a single treatment pass.
“In order to achieve PFAS removal to compliant levels of parts per trillion, the hydrocarbons remaining in the water must also be removed by the absorbent media, either before the final polishing stage or at the final polishing stage,” Paul says.
The hydrocarbons will also need to be removed at the same parts per trillion level, and thus any absorbent polishing system added must be designed to cope with the additional hydrocarbon contaminant load and spikes, in addition to capability and capacity to treat PFAS before break through occurs.
“When using conventional contaminant removal equipment, which can cost millions of dollars in larger facilities, the media will be saturated in a couple of hours when dealing with PFAS, as the contaminants all build up and block conventional systems,” Paul says.
Alternatively, OLEOLOGY’s MyCelx sequence removes the need for additional filtration, thereby removing stresses on the media.
Both Paul and Saasha employ an onion metaphor to explain OLEOLOGY’s filtration sequence process.
PFAS contaminants are the smallest volume at the centre of the onion, Saasha says, and as such, the larger outer layers must be sequentially removed prior to effectively rid water of PFAS contamination.
OLEOLOGY’s MyCelx filter works to remove oily emulsions and suspended solids first, then semi soluble organics, before removing dissolved metals and other organics.
The last stage of the one-stop-shop filtration attacks PFAS – resulting in water free of contaminants.
A SUSTAINABLE PARTNERSHIP
When Paul discusses the ecological, social and human health implications of PFAS, he could be mistaken for a dyed-in-wool environmental activist, that said, he stresses the fact that PFAS can be dealt with in an economically viable manner.
“We need to bridge the gap between environmental regulation, which is incredibly important, community expectation and the expectation of shareholders,” he says.
“Whether we’re dealing with wastewater treatment operators or industrial clients, at their core, they’re looking for the most efficient way to clean discharge or ground water to provide value for their shareholders.”
While some might perceive conflict between economic and environmental drivers, Paul explains that OLEOLOGY works to provide a harmonious solution.
“The last thing we want to see in Australia is more industry closing down. So OLEOLOGY operates at the intersection of those two ideas,” Paul says.
“There is a viable option that keeps people employed, keeps industry going, delivers dividend profits to shareholders and ensures community and environmental expectations are meet. We’re committed to guaranteeing both sides of the table get what they want.”
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