Could UMN professor’s invention clean PFCs from east metro water? He thinks so

Matt Simcik has invented a sponge that might be able to clean up one of the state’s worst water-pollution problems, the PFCs in Washington County groundwater.

His technique involves putting absorbent material underground.

“This stuff is sticky. It sticks to the soil, and then the (chemicals) stick to it,” said Simcik, who lives in Stillwater and is an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota.

The method is still unproven, but he hopes to get funding to launch the first tests. He says the swath of underground pollution in Washington County would be a fine place to start.

The pollution consists of perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, manufactured by 3M and dumped in disposal sites. They have leaked into the groundwater of Oakdale, Lake Elmo, Woodbury and Cottage Grove, and have proved devilishly difficult to remove.

So far the only way to take them out of water is to pump up the water and filter it, which 3M has been doing with hundreds of millions of gallons a year.

But Simcik wondered: What if you could put a water filter underground?

That’s the idea he and two other professors came up with three years ago.

They got a contract for $900,000 from a group of government agencies, including the Air Force. The immediate goal was to remove PFCs from the groundwater around airbases, where firefighting foam containing PFCs had been used.

The professors discovered a way to take the material used in municipal water filters, turn it into a liquid, and bury it.

They are working with two types of liquid polymers, which are large man-made molecules. The polymers clean water because they are positively charged — and attract negatively charged pollution particles.

Simcik said that like tiny magnets, the polymers will attract PFCs. “They bind with these compounds and don’t let them go,” he said.

To supercharge the cleaning ability, Simcik wants to add ground-up bits of activated charcoal, which is used in water filters.

He hasn’t yet tried the method, either at an Air Force base or in Washington County. The $900,000 grant has been used, and he’s looking for another grant to test the concoction.

But the potential of the pollution sponge could be huge.

The PFCs were the subject of a $5 billion lawsuit in Minnesota, when the attorney general sued 3M for releasing them into the environment. In March, 3M settled that lawsuit for $850 million.

Cottage Grove, Woodbury and Lake Elmo have shut down wells and water towers because of the levels of PFCs in their water.

A 3M spokeswoman contacted Friday said the company is not aware of Simcik’s research and can’t comment about its potential.

But Simcik said the sponge could help. He said a series of barriers around the sources of the pollution — the PFC dumpsites — might be able to stop the slow-moving underground flow.

The burying of the polymers won’t cause further environmental problems, he said, because the material has been used for decades and is stable. It won’t drift underground the way that PFCs do — it sticks to the soil particles.

The process doesn’t have a name yet.

“I have heard it called,” said Simcik, “the Minnesota Method.”

To see a video explaining the water-cleaning process, visit youtube.com/watch?v=u6_HN6cdeoc.


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