Feb 23, 2024 - Climate

Chicago technology tested to remove "forever chemicals" from water

Animated illustration of a spigot with droplets of water falling.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Local scientists just got a boost in funding to develop technologies that remove toxic "forever chemicals" from the Great Lakes.

Why it matters: These chemicals — collectively called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — have been found in about 45% of U.S tap water, and they're linked to cancers and other health problems.

Threat level: Used extensively in nonstick, water- and oil-repellent and fire-resistant industrial and consumer products, PFAS can bioaccumulate in people, livestock, wildlife and fish if they enter the environment and water sources, Axios' Jacob Knutson writes.

  • A recent study found PFAS present in all tested Lake Michigan sport fish. But Northwestern University scientist William Dichtel notes that levels in Lake Michigan, so far, appear to remain below the proposed EPA limits.

Driving the news: Chicago innovation hub Current recently won a $160 million federal grant for its ReNEW initiative, which aims to remove contaminants, including PFAS, from the Great Lakes.

  • As part of the project, a new technology developed by Dichtel is being tested at the O'Brien filtration plant on the Chicago-Skokie border.
  • It uses a material derived from corn that's "able to bind PFAS" quickly as water flows through it, Dichtel tells Axios.

What they're saying: If successful, Dichtel notes it could allow industries to pretreat and clean contaminated water before discharging it.

Four tubes are hanging from wires as part of a larger experiment.
Northwestern University's soon-to-be operational PFAS separation pilot at MWRD's Terrence J. O'Brien Water Reclamation Plant in Skokie. Photo: Courtesy of Charles Impastato

What's ahead: Developing the technology "will take several years at the small scale and longer for large-scale implementations," Dichtel says.

The intrigue: Researchers hope the tech could even recover valuable substances from contaminated water, such as "nutrients we can use for fertilizer and critical minerals like lithium, which we can use in chip and battery production," Alaina Harkness, CEO of Current, tells Axios.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Chicago.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Chicago stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Chicago.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more