Professori Amit Bhatnagar, LUT-yliopisto, Mikkeli
Created 18.6.2024
Updated 27.6.2024

Water is a vital resource essential for sustaining human life and supporting life on Earth as a whole. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that over 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. The scarcity of freshwater resources is compounded by pollution, largely attributable to human activities.  

“In addition to conventional pollutants like metals, nutrients, arsenic, fluoride, and pesticides, chemicals of emerging concern, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly referred to as forever chemicals, are increasingly detected in water bodies,” says Professor Amit Bhatnagar from LUT’s Department of Separation Science.

In December 2023, Bhatnagar received a four-year funding from Jane and Aatos Erkko (JAES) Foundation for a project that develops effective methods for removing PFAS from water in water utilities using innovative functional materials.

“This presents a significant challenge, given the lack of efficient treatment methods. In addition, short and ultrashort-chain PFAS have been detected even in bottled water. PFAS constitute one of the most serious contaminations the world is facing today.” 


PFAS pose a persistent threat to human health

PFAS encompass a vast array of over 4,700 synthetic chemicals that have been integrated into various industries for more than seven decades. Their versatile applications span from firefighting foams to non-stick coatings for cookware, paper food packaging, cosmetics, textiles, paints, ski gear, photography, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals.

PFAS’ nick name Forever Chemicals derives from their longevity. Certain PFAS are known to persist in the environment longer than any other synthetic substance. Even if we stopped using any PFAS today, they would persist in the environment for generations.

“Exposure to certain PFAS is associated with reduced immune response, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and increased risk of cancers, including kidney and testicular cancers. As a result, there are global efforts to regulate and limit their concentrations in the environment,” Bhatnagar explains.

For instance, the EU's Drinking Water Directive establishes maximum contaminant levels for the total sum of PFAS and for a specified grouping of 20 PFAS compounds deemed concerning in water intended for human consumption. 

Amit Bhatnagar
PFAS constitute one of the most serious contaminations the world is facing today.
Amit Bhatnagar
Professor of Water Treatment

PFAS have a negative impact on biodiversity 

In addition to humans, PFAS are harmful to the environment. The contamination of PFAS has the potential to disrupt food chains and inflict negative impacts on biodiversity.

Many of the PFAS compounds are highly soluble in water. This enables them to spread wide easily. Recent studies have uncovered alarming levels of PFAS in rainwater across various regions, surpassing established safety thresholds.

“PFAS contamination is widespread in both surface water and groundwater. PFAS may also infiltrate soil either through contaminated water or the application of PFAS-containing biosolids or sludge,” says Bhatnagar. 

LUT-yliopisto, Mikkeli, PFAS

Removing PFAS is challenging because of their diversity

Both academia and industries are actively engaged in the pursuit of scalable and effective methods for removing PFAS from water. According to Bhatnagar a number of carbon-based materials or adsorbents, different resins, polymers, and membranes have been tested in removing PFAS with varying success.

These removal techniques operate through different mechanisms. Certain adsorbents feature porous structures capable of trapping PFAS molecules, while others instigate chemical reactions that facilitate PFAS removal from water.  

“Currently, granular activated carbon adsorption and ion exchange resins are methods that have demonstrated effective results in the removal of long-chain PFAS from water. However, the performance of these methods was found low in the case of the removal of short-chain PFAS.”

The challenge with PFAS removal is their diversity. All PFAS compounds have unique properties: some exhibit higher solubility in water, while others a greater resistance to specific treatment methods. This means that there is no single solution for removing all different PFAS from water.

Bhatnagar’s research group will start its systematic studies on PFAS removal in summer 2024 in its ambitious project funded by JAES. They will study mainly adsorption technology but may also test a combination of other technologies depending on the preliminary results. The best performing materials will be selected for upscaling studies. 

LUT is Finland’s leading university in water-related research

Water is one of LUT University’s four research focus areas, positioning LUT as Finland's foremost institution in water-related studies. Highlighting this LUT will organise the International Conference on Emerging Trends in Water Treatment 2024, which discusses solutions to ensure the availability of clean water in the future as well.

Bhatnagar emphasizes the significance of LUT’s interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach to water research.

“Through the integration of diverse expertise and perspectives, LUT is well-positioned to drive innovation, enhancing water quality, and play a significant role in global efforts for environmental stewardship and resource conservation.” 

More information:

Read next: