Researchers to remediate PFAS contamination with hemp seed proteins

Thursday, 18 April 2019

University of Newcastle researchers are on track to create a solution to per-and poly- fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination, in a project that could benefit the Williamtown community and countless other sites across the world.

L to R: Research team members Mr Glenn Currell, Dr Brett Turner and Dr Dan Bishop.

Dr Brett Turner and a team from the University’s Priority Research Centre for Geotechnical Science and Engineering, are to continue investigating the use of hemp seed proteins, and the hemp plant itself, to treat water and soil contaminated with PFAS. As announced in the 2019-2020 budget, the Federal Government has awarded $4.7m to the researchers for this work.

The man-made chemicals known as PFASs have been widely used in food wrappers, textile stains, non-stick cooking utensils, carpet and furniture protectants, insecticides, electronics, and in fire-fighting foams, as they are highly effective against hydrocarbon fuel fires.

Within Australia a number of sites have been identified as having groundwater and soil contaminated with PFAS including the Williamtown RAAF base in NSW; Oakey Aviation Centre in QLD, and the Country Fire Authority (CFA) training facility in Fiskville VIC.

Globally, the extent of this problem is even greater, with more than 41,000 airports in the world, many of which are potentially contaminated with PFAS. Considered almost non-degradable in nature, many conventional treatments for PFAS remediation are not effective, yet the costs of PFAS remediation technologies are exorbitant.

Dr Turner said the team’s early findings, supported by an initial $600,000 grant through the NSW Government’s Research Attraction and Acceleration Program, were being further explored, and applied to the more complex challenge of contaminated soil.

“We found that hemp has a remarkable affinity for PFAS chemicals in groundwater, so we expect that this can be applied to remediate contaminated soil – an area where currently there are no options,” Dr Turner said.

Director of the Priority Research Centre and 2015 NSW Scientist of the Year, Laureate Professor Scott Sloan said the next stage of the research would pioneer a more cost-effective way of removing chemical compounds from soil, groundwater and surface waters in a natural way.

“We are excited about the potential benefits for the residents around our local RAAF base at Williamtown, and for other affected communities worldwide,” Laureate Professor Sloan said.

The $4.7m funding has been awarded through the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science over five years. This research is also supported by the University of Newcastle with additional funding of $1.5m.

“We’d like to thank the Government for the funding, as well as Senator Brian Burston for his significant efforts in helping to secure it,” Dr Brett Turner said.

“This critical grant will allow us to increase our team, employing three Doctoral Fellows, four PhD students and a research technician. We look forward to continuing the hard work, and pioneering a local solution to a global problem.”

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The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.