There’s good reason for this. Not only are PFAS everywhere around us; they’re also in us. Humans can’t break down PFAS, and our bodies struggle to clear them from our systems. Studies suggest they’re in my blood and yours—the majority of Americans’, in fact—and they have been linked to increased risks of kidney and testicular cancer, decreased infant birthweights, and high blood pressure. And that’s only what we know about now: researchers continue to grapple with the full impacts of PFAS on human and environmental health.
Revive’s Annihilator and other nascent destruction technologies show the first signs of promise that these “forever chemicals” can be removed from the environment permanently, limiting further human exposure and risk. But destroying PFAS is only one step in the full remediation process. Across the globe, researchers are developing new technologies and techniques to better understand, test, and track the chemicals—as well as identifying alternative materials—to eliminate PFAS for good.
Breaking it down
PFAS traces back to the mid-20th century, when the chemical giant 3M invented PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) to prevent nonstick coatings from clumping during production. Eventually, 3M began selling the material to fellow chemical companies, including DuPont, which used the material for its then revolutionary coating, Teflon. Later other manufacturers, such as Chemours and Corteva, would develop and produce their own brands. The health impacts of PFAS and extent to which the chemicals had pervaded the environment wouldn’t be discovered until the early 2000s, when legal action against DuPont unearthed evidence that chemical companies knew some of the risks PFAS posed to human health yet intentionally dumped them into waterways and unprotected holding ponds, where they eventually made their way into drinking water and people.
Though it has been years since the initial hazards of PFAS were made public, scientists and regulators have since struggled with how best to remediate the contamination and keep people safe. Traditionally, PFAS are treated through standard water filtration methods: granular activated carbon, reverse osmosis, ion exchange resins. These methods work extraordinarily well to capture PFAS. The problem is, though, that once captured, the chemicals don’t go away. The filters are discarded or chemically washed for reuse, and the notoriously clingy PFAS reenter the environment through landfills and wastewater. Incineration—another traditional mitigation technique—risks sending undestroyed PFAS compounds up the smokestack and into the air. All the while, PFAS continue to be manufactured, used, discarded, and circulated through the environment. And so the hunt is on for a way to make the forever chemicals a bit more ephemeral.
For the Annihilator, Revive uses a destruction method called supercritical water oxidation (SCWO) to cleave the durable carbon fluorine bonds that characterize PFAS compounds. In another shipping container, which serves as the monitoring station for the Annihilator, David Trueba points to a bank of computer monitors displaying data from the various sensors inside the destruction device. Trueba is the president and CEO of Revive and serves as one of my guides on the tour. SCWO is essentially a PFAS pressure cooker, he explains, heating and compressing the contaminated liquid to a supercritical state of above 500 °C and 3,200 PSI. In that state, where water is caught in a sort of purgatory between liquid and gas, oxygen becomes soluble, and the resulting oxidation drives the reaction that ultimately destroys the PFAS. Among other applications, SCWO has been used to decommission and destroy old stockpiles of mustard gas, the brutal chemical weapon that plagued the trenches of World War I. Battelle, a national research nonprofit, adapted SCWO to target PFAS and spun off Revive as a private entity with investment from Viking Global Investors in January 2023.