The Defense Department May Have Found a Fix for Contaminated Water on Bases

A plasma reactor is demonstrated.
A plasma reactor is demonstrated at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to degrade and destroy perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, better known as PFOS and PFOA, in sample groundwater. (Clarkson University)

Academic researchers and the U.S. Air Force have conducted a test using technology that can destroy hazardous chemical compounds in groundwater that are contaminating military bases, surrounding communities and the environment.

The service this week announced it had tested an "Enhanced Contact Plasma Reactor," capable of destroying perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid -- known as PFOS and PFOA -- synthetic chemical compounds that are collectively part of a group of polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

Tested at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, with partners Clarkson University and GSI Environmental as well as the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, the reactor acts as "a closed system utilizing water, electricity and argon gas to degrade PFOS and PFOA in minutes," the service said in a news release.

"The argon gas concentrates PFAS at the gas-liquid interface, and plasma is generated at that interface, which then destroys PFAS," said Dr. Selma Mededovic, one of the principal researchers and an associate professor at Clarkson's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Related: List of Bases Contaminated with PFAS Chemicals Expected to Grow, Pentagon Says

The scientists said plasma can reduce the PFAS molecule chain "down into smaller compounds" through several repeated cycles. Hundreds of gallons of groundwater were treated during a two-week demonstration, according to the release.

"This is the only technology that actually destroys PFAS molecules that has been demonstrated at this scale; it doesn't just remove them from water," added Clarkson's Dr. Tom Holsen, also a principal researcher, in the release. "All of the other demonstrations that we're aware of remove it from the water through filtration so there is still a PFAS containing waste."

The Sept. 25 test comes amid Pentagon efforts to find solutions to treat the contamination, which has been linked to birth defects, infertility, developmental delays and some cancers.

At the direction of Defense Secretary Mark Esper in July, the Pentagon established a task force to study the chemicals, which have been found in aqueous firefighting foam, in use by the military since the 1970s. The foam containing PFAS has since been mostly phased out, but is still used on some Navy ships.

The analysts will next conduct a more detailed analysis of the treated water and evaluate "further scaling-up of their plasma reactor design."

The method could have broader applications beyond military bases and may become a commercialized product in the next two years, Mededovic told

"We were just recently awarded the Environmental Protection Agency's Small Business Innovation Research Phase II grant to commercialize the system," she said Tuesday in an email. "We are currently also looking into using our plasma-based treatment system to treat ion exchange regenerant brine (combining plasma with ion exchange), foam fractionate (combining plasma with foam fractionation), landfill leachate and [aqueous film-forming foams] formulations."

PFAS chemicals have been found in the drinking water of locations where 19 million Americans reside in 49 states. The Defense Department in 2016 began widespread testing for contamination in drinking water at its facilities.

Last year, the DoD examined 524 installations for PFOS and PFOA, and found 401 with some level of contamination. Twenty-four of those had drinking water contamination at levels higher than the EPA's lifetime health advisory standard of 70 parts per trillion.

The chemicals are also found in many industrial and consumer products, such as food packaging, nonstick cookware, stain-and-water resistant fabric and carpet, polishes and paints.

-- Patricia Kime contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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