CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Thanks to Frank Leibfarth and his research team, people around the country may soon drink water free of a certain toxic chemical.
The Yankton native and University of South Dakota graduate is working on an easily produced and af-fordable resin. The tiny pellets would filter out per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a contami-nant found in water supplies across the nation.
“This (resin) will be a solid, the size of a bead, .1 to .5 millimeters in diameter,” he told the Press & Da-kotan in a phone interview this week.
Leibfarth works as a chemistry professor and mentors 15 graduate students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. His team previously worked with alternatives to single-use plastics and is now focusing efforts on contaminated water in the state.
For his achievements, Leibfarth was recently featured in the Popular Science digital magazine, chosen among “The Brilliant 10: The Most Innovative Up-And-Coming Minds In Science.”
“These U.S.-based engineers, psychologists, chemists and more are taking on society’s biggest challenges across the world,” according to Bill Gourgey, the article’s author.
For decades, DuPont fed PFAS into the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water for much of southeastern North Carolina, Gourgey noted. DuPont phased out production of the PFAS in 2013, but the toxin lingers in the water and in household products like Teflon, Scotch-gard and Gore-Tex.
The PFAS impact can last for years, Leibfarth said.
“They are known as the ‘forever chemicals’ because they don’t degrade in the environment,” he said. “When it comes to the ecosystem, they’ll be in there forever. It will presumably take years to decompose, so this problem isn’t going away.”
While appreciating the magazine’s recognition, Leibfarth quickly credited his team as the heart of the research. The Popular Science article will provide important exposure and credibility for moving forward with the latest project, he added.
“They picked out the 10 early-career scientists who are using innovative work with an element of looking out for the public good,” he said. “We’re hoping our work will have significant benefits for the public.”
A MAJOR PROBLEM
The Popular Science article described the scope of the problem far beyond southeastern North Carolina.
As of last January, more than 2,000 sites across the U.S. contained documented PFAS contamination, according to the non-profit Environmental Working Group. Seven states already enforce limits on the chemicals in their drinking water, with more to follow.
“Because of the Popular Science article, there is a lot more people becoming aware,” Leibfarth said. “This problem is found in many states and around the world. We want to implement a solution rapidly.”
The “forever chemicals” are made up of tightly-bonded carbon and fluorine, according to Popular Science. A subset of them can contribute to elevated cholesterol, thyroid disease, lowered immunity and cancer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found them in the bloodstreams of nearly every American it has screened since 1999, the article added.
However, the Leibfarth Group has developed a fluorine-based resin that attracts the PFAS toxins and holds onto them. The North Carolina Legislature allocated $5 million for the project.
“We have known this (Cape Fear) river has been polluted with these PFAS compounds. A lot of citizens, especially one of the larger cities where this pollution was centered, put a lot of public pressure on the legislators,” Leibfarth said.
“(Researchers) are finding out where the chemicals are the most prevalent and how to get rid of them. Most of our team was taking known technology and implementing it to see if we get these (tox-ins) out of the drinking water.”
PFAS pollution creates a number of challenges that don’t respond to traditional approaches, he said.
“They’re harmful to human beings. The big challenge is that they are dangerous, even at really low concentrations (of parts per trillion),” he said. “That makes it hard not only to take them out of the water but also to take them out efficiently.”
Leibfarth envisions the resins becoming readily available for everything from home use to schools and municipal water systems.
Companies have become supportive of the clean-up effort and avoiding the problem in the first place, Leibfarth said.
However, the compounds are still used in firefighting foams and remain part of the environment, he said.
The research process started with demonstrating the idea worked and having it published as a peer-review paper.
“The next stage was making materials that didn’t harm the environment. We wanted to know what we were doing was chemically stable and not have a legacy for getting into the water,” he said. “We also wanted to see what it worked like in the real world. Now, we’re identifying ways to make it cost competitive.”
The research has continued amidst a pandemic that initially limited personal contact and working on campus. While the team has resumed work in the lab, the university requires a number of COVID-19 protocols.
Leibfarth credits his South Dakota upbringing as important in his success. Yankton offers strong public schools, he said, and his undergraduate work at USD provided him with opportunities. In 2004, during the summer before his freshman year at USD, he took on a project studying the Missouri River in his Yankton hometown.
“I benefited from growing up in South Dakota, which is a small state. We all have the idea that you can come from a small town and make a huge difference in things around you,” he said.
“I haven’t backed away from that idea, and in some ways, I show the American dream is alive.”
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