Scared about “forever chemicals” after watching ‘Dark Waters?’
The movie is based on a true story. Rob Bilott was a high-flying corporate defense attorney for eight years. Then he took on an environmental lawsuit that would upend his entire career — and expose a brazen, decades-long history of chemical pollution.
Sadly, people still drink water contaminated with man-made “forever chemicals." The chemicals, resistant to breaking down in the environment, are known as poly and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs. They are typically used in fire retardants, oil and water repellents, furniture, waterproof clothes, take-out containers and non-stick cookware.
They are called “forever chemicals” because it could take thousands of years for them to naturally break down. These chemicals have been linked to cancers, liver damage, low birth weight and other health problems.
Fortunately, BioLargo Inc’s (OTCMKTS:BLGO) subsidiary BioLargo Engineering, Science & Technologies Inc (BLEST), has confirmed the potential of a new water treatment technology to solve the global drinking water contamination problem.
Proactive sat down with Randall Moore, who is president and CEO of BLEST, to find out about progress on a device called the Aqueous Electrostatic Concentrator (AEC) that is effective in eliminating PFAS from water. The new technology eliminates more than 99% of the two most predominant PFAS compounds – perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
What are some of the concerns about people being exposed to a toxic soup of PFAS chemicals?
There are numerous articles in the popular press about PFAS compounds being tied to myriad health problems, including various forms of cancer, liver and kidney disfunction, high cholesterol and weight gain. The hard, peer-reviewed science hasn’t caught up with the public demand for answers to the effects of long-term, low-level exposure as opposed to acute exposure.
However, a couple of points are undeniable. Firstly, these compounds don’t occur in nature, so nature hasn’t yet produced a biological means to degrade them. Secondly, PFAS compounds bioaccumulate. That is, the human body doesn’t do a good job in clearing PFAS from the body, taking decades after exposure to get rid of the compounds in the bloodstream.
Can you talk about BioLargo Engineering’s PFAS technology project and the support it has received from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)?
BioLargo received a Phase I, EPA grant through the SBIR program. The grant supported the design, development and testing of the new bench scale PFAS treatment device, which we named the Aqueous Electrostatic Concentrator. The EPA has published a summary of the Phase 1 study on their website.
How effective is BLEST’s Aqueous Electrostatic Concentrator (AEC) in eliminating PFAS chemicals?
The AEC performance exceeded our expectations, achieving over 99% removal of PFOA and PFOS in a single stage unit. In practice, we expect to use multiple stages, each stage optimized to target smaller and smaller concentrations of PFAS, until water is produced that has no detectable PFAS chemical present. Our original thinking was that PFAS would be treated like other water contaminants and that water below some threshold concentration would be acceptable for public use. However, recent legislation and events that have eroded the lack of public trust have pushed the acceptable threshold concentrations to the detection limit of the methods. Our Phase I work confirmed we can meet those ultra-low thresholds using the AEC.
Since BioLargo has completed Phase 1, which involved the design, build and testing of its technology to remove PFAS from water, what does the next phase involve?
Phase II work will involve confirming that the AEC is as effective on the rest of the PFAS target list compounds. Based on the principle of operation, it is logical to conclude that the AEC will be equally effective on the other polar PFAS compounds. However, it is important to make sure. And the best way to confirm the performance is to do the study. There’s also considerable support under Phase II for commercial development, market evaluation and penetration. By the end of Phase II, we expect to have commercial scale pilot systems in operation, treating contaminated plumes in real-world situations.
Can you demystify the technology behind the AEC and why it’s so easy on the pocket?
The PFAS compounds of concern have functional groups on one end of the PFAS molecule that cause it to behave similarly to an ionized polar compound in solution. In other words, one end of the compound has a slight negative charge, while the other end does not exhibit an electrical charge in solution. Therefore, the PFAS molecule is attracted to an electrode that is positively charged. Our system puts a proprietary membrane in the migration path of PFAS compound, effectively capturing and retaining the contaminant.
The amount of work done (energy expended) on the system can be very small, since the concentration of PFAS contamination even in highly contaminated water is very small. The Phase I tests demonstrated that the lower the PFAS concentrations, the less energy has to be expended to remove it. So, the operating costs can be very attractive compared to higher energy consuming technologies such as reverse osmosis. The AEC can be constructed from “off the shelf” components and doesn’t require exotic materials to operate effectively, which keeps the capital costs under control.
With this proof of claim in hand, how far are we from seeing the AEC gain traction in the mainstream water treatment market?
There are two primary markets for PFAS treatment systems. The first, is the direct treatment of contaminated plumes of PFAS in ground water. The second is treatment of drinking water. The smallest system applicable for treating drinking water will be in the 10,000 gallon per minute range. Our initial target is the direct treatment of contaminated plumes, which can be addressed with smaller systems from 10 gallons per minute (GPM) to say, 500 GPM. Once a 500 GPM unit is in operation and demonstrates performance, we can move into the larger systems. Assuming we can secure private funding to match our recently secured Phase II EPA funds, we can have units to address the ground water plume treatment market within a year.
Would BioLargo license or partner the technology with a big player to secure the funds to make tens of thousands of units in the shortest time possible?
First, it is important to remember that our engineering and science teams at BioLargo have had extensive and successful careers dealing with some of the most significant remediation challenges. We've had long careers working with large customers and governments around the world. We joined the BioLargo family of companies so that we could put our skills to work to help solve some of the most difficult and pressing issues facing our planet, just like this PFAS situation.
While we have the experience of dealing with every facet of the execution of projects just like this one, including design, build and operate projects, we realize that the opportunity is global and will likely move so fast that we must explore all rational options to scale-up and deliver solutions as fast as possible. As always, we will be accessing how best to provide the greatest benefit and value to our clients. We obviously will need to build business relationships that support large-scale, national and international deployment. As we prove out our high-performance low-cost thesis, we believe business opportunities will expand around the world quickly. We are also looking into teaming with providers of other technologies to offer complete water solutions to the marketplace.
How big is the PFAS clean-up market?
The short answer is: Huge. The market is so large it’s hard to put a number to it. Environmental costs for the cleanup of previous contamination from PCBs, dioxin, lead, etc. were incredibly large. But the extent of contamination was contained within known geographic areas and the number of sites escalated more slowly over time. In comparison, PFAS contamination is seemingly ubiquitous and not as constrained by physical barriers, causing the contamination to spread almost unimpeded. The number of identified contaminated sites grows daily and the number will continue to escalate rapidly as water suppliers begin to look for contamination in earnest. There were 610 sites in 43 states as of May 2019. There are over 400 sites on military bases alone. I expect the final tally to exceed 2,000 identified sites in the US. Orange County California estimates the cost to treat the 90 wells already confirmed to be contaminated with PFAS at $850 million using conventional techniques.
Based on our estimates of the cost of equipment required to address the market, we think the equipment market could be at least $200-$400 million for small units. Many municipalities are also installing “whole city” treatment systems, which could easily cost more than $40 million each. So, the total equipment supply market could easily exceed $1 billion.
However, the larger costs will include maintenance, repair, and testing of the systems, adding another $2 billion. Additionally, the final disposal of the collected PFAS must be considered. The disposal costs could also exceed $2 billion. We would expect the total addressable market to grow to well over $10 billion before the cleanup is complete. The truth is that the world is just getting its arms around the breadth of the problem and they don’t yet know about our AEC high-performance low-cost solution that should help relieve some of the financial pain.
Contact the author Uttara Choudhury at [email protected]
Follow her on Twitter: @UttaraProactive