Underlying Interfacial Phenomena in PFAS-Polymer Sorbent Adsorption
Dr. Amrtita Sarkar has received over $194,000 from the NSF for the project
Posted in: Research News
Dr. Sarkar’s project is estimated to run through 2024. You can learn about the project in the abstract below.
Household and industrial markets for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have dramatically expanded in recent years despite the environmental persistence of these ‘forever chemicals’. PFAS are found in ground, surface, and drinking waters and, in high concentrations, have been associated with serious health effects such as liver and thyroid disease and cancer. Thus, water decontamination efforts focused on mitigating the environmental and health impacts of hazardous PFAS must be considered. Current PFAS removal techniques rely on sorbent materials (e.g., activated carbon and ion exchange resins) for their reasonable removal rates and low costs. Yet, these common sorbents suffer from poor selectivity, low affinity, and slow adsorption kinetics when faced with PFAS at environmentally-relevant concentrations, and the sorbent regeneration processes are energy-intensive. Advanced sorbent materials that exhibit selective and rapid removal of PFAS with inexpensive regeneration are urgently needed. This project examines the use of fluorinated macromolecules with tunable functionalities, porosities, and controllable hydrophilic-hydrophobic interactions for advanced sorbent design. The design approach prioritizes manufacturing simplicity to eliminate the need for costly post-synthetic transformations and complex instrumentation. The investigation will focus on understanding the complex interfacial phenomena governing the separation of PFAS from drinking water using the polymer sorbent material. This project also serves as an educational platform for developing graduate-level course materials and engaging undergraduate and K-12 students in STEM research.
The goal of this project is to develop a low-cost, mass-scale sorbent production strategy using a novel fluorinated block copolymer. The polymer candidate leverages its self-assembly at solid-liquid interfaces to facilitate the elimination of toxic PFAS from drinking water. The porous polymer sorbent will be synthesized from inexpensive, commercially-available monomers and does not require post-synthetic transformation to achieve its desired functionality. The sorbent design is inspired by the underlying interfacial phenomena, where small-molecule adsorption and balanced hydrophobic/hydrophilic interactions can be controlled concurrently. To that end, the project aims to develop a fundamental understanding of the working principles of the porous polymer sorbent. The approach will examine the interplay of (i) hydrophilic interactions of sorbent functionality to the short-chain PFAS and water molecules, (ii) balanced hydrophobic carbon-fluorine—fluorine-carbon interactions at solid-liquid interfaces, where the polymer sorbent is “solid” and long-chain PFAS dissolved in water is considered a “liquid” phase, and (iii) tuning thermodynamically-driven self-assembly phenomena. PFAS elimination performance will be tested with “control” and drinking water samples collected from various areas of New Jersey. This project will also establish a sustainable approach for green solvent-based recycling and reuse of spent sorbents. To convey the scientific findings to a broader audience, the investigator will form an Undergraduate & K-12 Research Team at Montclair State University. This team will participate in (i) fieldwork to collect drinking water samples from nearby industrial zones for sorbent testing and (ii) educational outreach by presenting an interactive “Visual Color Code Sorbent Demonstration” among communities having limited technical knowledge. Insights gained from this research will also be integrated into a graduate course to increase students’ interests in the fields of polymers and interfacial science and engineering.