Researchers at Colorado School of Mines partnered with cleantech startup Aquagga to tackle forever chemicals. The Mines-patented technology destroys these chemicals and halts the growing environmental and public health challenges posed by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
The technology, HALT-PFAS, was initially developed at Mines, but in a limited capacity. According to Brian Pinkard, chief technology officer and co-founder of Aquagga, Mines had “developed [PFAS] at a very, very small scale, basically in a beaker, and … what I had been working on at the University of Washington was taking that type of chemistry and scaling it up into larger throughput systems.”
Aquagga, Inc., is a Tacoma, Washington-based Public Benefit Corporation that originated at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and the University of Washington. The company, which was recently granted a U.S. patent, has entered into an exclusive licensing agreement with Mines for the commercialization of the HALT-PFAS technology.
Hydrothermal alkaline treatment, or HALT, has been proven to completely destroy all types of PFAS. These chemicals can be found in a variety of products: firefighting foam, non-stick pans, pizza boxes, cosmetics, and more. The same properties that make PFAS useful in many household items, however, also keep them from breaking down in the environment.
In short, until the invention of HALT-PFAS, PFAS have truly been “forever chemicals” that pose a number of health risks to humans. A growing body of research indicates that PFAS can cause cancer amongst other developmental and metabolic problems.
The Humble Beginnings of Forever Chemical Destruction
Researchers at Mine have been working on the PFAS problem for years, taking a multidisciplinary approach to their research. The concept originated from Timothy Strathmann, professor of civil and environmental engineering and the lead inventor of HALT-PFAS.
HALT-PFAS emerged from Strathman’s research on renewable energy. While working on a technique to speed up the natural geochemical processes that create hydrocarbon fuels, Strathmann realized a similar approach might also destroy PFAS. Would the same “pressure cooker on steroids” also work to break down PFAS?
Strathmann said, “We need solutions that not only remove the chemicals from things like our drinking water but can ultimately close the cycle by destroying the PFAS. This is a piece of that puzzle, and we’re excited HALT-PFAS can help play a role.”
In 2020, Mines began their collaboration with Aquagga to help propel the HALT-PFAS technology into a full-scale commercial product.
We were kind of in this sweet spot sitting between these two research institutions,” Pinkard said. “We had the partnership with UW, we were establishing this partnership with School of Mines, and we had this expertise in this specific processing technology, so there was a logical fit. They had developed and demonstrated the chemistry, and then they were looking for a scale-up partner who could take the technology out of the lab and translate it into a commercial product.”
Since then, experiments have proven that HALT-PFAS do, in fact, break down PFAS in soil, groundwater, and firefighting foams. Aquagga has raised nearly $4 million in funding from the EPA and US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). Currently, the funding is being used to demonstrate the effectiveness and affordability of HALT-PFAS at active remediation sites.