The use of a sub-class of per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) in lithium ion batteries has been identified as a growing source of pollution in air and water, according to a recent study published in Nature Communications. Jennifer Guelfo, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Texas Tech University, emphasized the dilemma associated with the manufacturing, disposal, and recycling of clean energy infrastructure. While lithium ion batteries play a crucial role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions through innovations like electric cars, the unintended consequence of increasing PFAS pollution poses significant environmental risks. Guelfo stressed the importance of developing technologies, manufacturing controls, and recycling solutions that can combat the climate crisis without releasing highly persistent pollutants into the environment.

This study conducted by Guelfo and her research team involved sampling air, water, snow, soil, and sediment near manufacturing plants in various locations, including Minnesota, Kentucky, Belgium, and France. The results revealed high concentrations of bis-perfluoroalkyl sulfonimides (bis-FASIs), a sub-class of PFAS, in these samples. Furthermore, it was observed that air emissions of bis-FASIs could lead to long-range transport, potentially affecting areas far beyond the manufacturing sites. Toxicity testing on aquatic organisms indicated that concentrations of bis-FASIs similar to those found in the environment can alter behavior and energy metabolic processes. While the toxicity of bis-FASIs in humans has not been extensively studied, other well-known PFAS compounds have been linked to serious health issues such as cancer and infertility.

The researchers also conducted treatability testing to assess the breakdown of bis-FASIs during oxidation and found that these compounds are highly resistant to degradation, similar to other PFAS. However, methods such as granular activated carbon and ion exchange have shown promise in reducing the concentrations of bis-FASIs in water, indicating that existing treatment approaches for PFAS like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) may be effective. Lee Ferguson, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Duke University and co-author of the study, highlighted the relevance of these treatment methods in complying with new EPA Maximum Contaminant Levels for PFAS.

Guelfo and Ferguson underscored the importance of collaboration among scientists, engineers, sociologists, and policy makers in supporting the adoption of clean energy technologies. They emphasized the need to minimize the environmental footprint of new energy initiatives and ensure that advancements in clean energy infrastructure are truly sustainable. As the demand for lithium ion batteries and other clean energy solutions continues to grow, it is crucial to address the environmental implications of these technologies and implement effective mitigation strategies. By working together across disciplines, we can strive towards a more sustainable and resilient future for generations to come.

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