Air Force working toward innovative groundwater cleanup solution

  • Published
  • By Shannon Carabajal
  • Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center Public Affairs
The Air Force is working closely with leading academic researchers to solve a global challenge: cleaning groundwater contaminated with Perfluorooctane Sulfonate and Perfluorooctanoic Acid, known as PFOS and PFOA.

The Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Broad Agency Announcement program began the charge toward finding better, faster and more sustainable solutions for cleaning groundwater contaminated with PFOS and PFOA in 2011. Since then, AFCEC has awarded more than $7 million in contracts for innovative technologies to better understand and remediate the two chemicals, said Monique Nixon, AFCEC BAA coordinator.

PFOS and PFOA are two manmade chemicals found in many products around the world, including firefighting foam formerly used by the military and commercial airports to combat petroleum-based fires. The chemicals were also used widely in many water and stain-resistant products including nonstick cookware, stain-resistant fabric and carpet, and food packaging.

“Most people have been exposed to (PFOS and PFOA),” according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and researchers are beginning to study long-term health effects. The EPA issued a provisional short-term health advisory for the chemicals in 2009, followed by a drinking water health advisory in 2016.

Though EPA health advisories are non-enforceable and non-regulatory, AFCEC is aggressively identifying, responding to and preventing future drinking water contamination at Air Force bases around the country. As regulations and standards evolve, the team’s goals may eventually expand to include groundwater cleanup, a much bigger endeavor requiring a different approach.

Currently, the Air Force primarily uses granular activated carbon filters to clean drinking water contaminated with the chemicals. Though the filters are very effective, there are drawbacks, said Cornell Long, team lead for AFCEC’s PFOS and PFOA response team.

“Carbon filtration systems transfer (the compounds) from one medium – the water -- to another -- the carbon filter -- so there is still the challenge of managing and disposing of the filter media. One of the Air Force’s goals is to find a technology that destroys PFOS and PFOA to the basic elements or at least to safe, simple compounds,” Long said.

The BAA program seeks to identify that technology. Ongoing work includes a project by the Colorado School of Mines focused on using a high-pressure membrane filtration system in combination with a photochemical process designed to destroy the chemicals.

Another project showing promise is new technology developed by researchers at Clarkson University which cleans contaminated water using an electrical discharge plasma. The process requires no chemical additions, produces no waste, and destroys and breaks PFOS and PFOA down into less toxic products that either remain in the water, or are released into the atmosphere as harmless gases, according to Selma Mededovic Thagard, an associate professor with Clarkson University’s Wallace H. Coulter School of Engineering.

“Our system is ready to be scaled up; it’s nearly finished and it’s one of the most effective and efficient technologies available today for the treatment of PFOS and PFOA,” she said, adding that there’s still some work to be done before the technology can be introduced to the public.

As projects continue advancing, the Air Force moves closer to identifying a permanent solution and the resulting technology could benefit many communities and organizations.

When projects yield promising results, results are shared through presentations, trainings, manuscripts and websites. Additionally, through technology transfer efforts, program managers learn about the tools available and how they can be implemented.

The BAA program funds research into sustainable environmental solutions. The competition is full and open, with no restrictions on the type or size of firms eligible for award. For more information, visit