Two early-career researchers in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Louise Meunier and Ehssan Koupaie, are working with Grafoid on a recently awarded NSERC Alliance, which will develop a Graphene Kidney to treat Canadian waters contaminated with polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) pose a significant threat to Canadian freshwater systems. Although important advances have recently been made, the environmental fate of PFAS is unclear and without full treatment options. The impact of PFAS at Canadian contaminated sites results from their widespread use in cosmetics, materials, and fire retardants. Contaminated sites are often located near surface water, but excavation and pump-and-treat systems are inefficient and costly. Effective in-situ treatment technologies are urgently needed, particularly for PFAS-impacted soils, pore water, and associated freshwaters.

“The goal of this research is to develop a Graphene Kidney” says Meunier, who is the Principal Investigator on the project. “A Graphene Kidney would operate much the same as a kidney does to filter fluids in the human body but applied to contaminated water. Taking advantage of graphene nanomaterials, we are aiming to characterize interactions between graphene and PFAS (and its degradation products) and subsequently design a highly effective, yet economical in-situ filtration technology to remediate PFAS from contaminated pore and groundwater”.

The project has recently received the first round of funding (a total of $119,000 from NSERC and $75,000 from Grafoid). Drs Meunier and Koupaie will collaborate with researchers and other representatives from Grafoid, a Kingston-based research and development company that invests in and develops processes to apply economically scalable graphene. Dr. Meunier has been collaborating with Grafoid since 2017 in the characterization of graphene nanomaterials and in evaluating the effectiveness of Grafoid’s filtration solutions. Grafoid will contribute to the research by training and mentoring students and working with the Queen’s team to coordinate industrial efforts and foster ties with stakeholders.

“This project will provide highly qualified personnel (HQP) with a unique opportunity to experience various aspects of research, from modelling and design to hands-on experiments, scale-up, and economic analysis” says Koupaie, a Co-PI on the project.

This project is also connected to a recently awarded Tier 2 Ontario Research Fund – Research Excellence project based at Queen’s, “Integrated approaches to characterize, detect, and treat Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs) in the aquatic environments of Ontario.”

The Graphene Kidney would benefit Canada by offering an effective alternative to current remediation practices. Clean-up costs for PFAS-contaminated sites in Canada are estimated at $150M to $1.5B, based on inefficient removal technologies. When excavated, PFAS can be transferred to landfills, where contamination of leachate is already a concern.

Our proposed in-situ Graphene Kidney solution can have an immediate positive impact by offering a low-cost, on-site, effective PFAS treatment” says Meunier. “This technology is expected to quickly gain acceptance because of its simple process, which could be applied to clean-up more sites in Canada. The Graphene Kidney could also treat other emerging contaminants, and this research could be expanded to treat complex, multi-contaminant polluted waters, improving water quality in Canada and strengthening Canada’s position worldwide in state-of-the-art remediation technologies.