As towns begin to look for solutions to get forever chemicals out of their waste streams and drinking water supplies, a Maine company is pioneering work on ways to remove the toxic compounds and apply technology that can destroy them in real-world situations.
The engineer leading the company’s research and new product development believes it is about a year away from demonstrating complete destruction of the chemicals at an on-site pilot project and one to two years away from a full-scale installation.
ECT2, which stands for Emerging Compounds Treatment Technologies, was formed in 2013 in Portland and quickly turned to solutions for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, the following year, after learning about contamination at the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
The man-made chemicals have been linked to a number of serious illnesses, are present in a range of household and industrial products, and have contaminated soil, water and food in Maine and globally.
“The idea is none of the PFAS that we remove from water make it back out into the environment. That’s the whole objective,” said Steve Woodard, ECT2’s chief innovation officer.
Since 2014 the company has been granted 18 patents relating to PFAS removal and has grown from five people to 140, doubling in size in the last year. It is designing and installing what are arguably the three largest and most sophisticated PFAS treatment systems in the world, for major chemical manufacturing clients in other states. And it is working with five entities in Maine, including a municipal wastewater treatment plant in Somerset County that plans to become the first in Maine, and among the first in the nation, to remove the chemicals from wastewater and destroy them.
Researchers have developed promising methods to destroy PFAS, but applying techniques in real-world, messy situations is another matter altogether that companies like ECT2 are taking on. The challenges are substantial. There are thousands of different types of PFAS chemicals that react differently to various treatments. And while there are systems to remove PFAS from drinking water, it is appreciably more challenging to remove PFAS from wastewater given all the other elements in sewage that can muck up a capture system.
But Woodard, who belongs to a well-known environmental engineering family in Maine, said he believes the company is getting close to doing what was previously impossible: removing PFAS from wastewater or water and destroying the resulting waste in a time-efficient manner. His father, Frank Woodard, co-founded the environmental consulting firm Woodard & Curran in Portland in 1979.
The end goal of destruction is often called mineralization, which is when the PFAS chemicals break down into innocuous components of fluoride, carbon dioxide and water.
“What makes me hopeful is that we’ve demonstrated it in the laboratory on the bench scale and are preparing to deploy a technology to demonstrate full mineralization at the pilot scale this year, meaning within the next 12 months we would have a successful on-site pilot at one of these locations that has PFAS contamination,” Woodard said.
In the next few weeks, ECT2 is planning to start a pilot project at the Anson-Madison Sanitary District, which has received state and federal funding to clean out PFAS from its wastewater. The facility is one of many wastewater treatment plants discharging treated waste into the Kennebec River, which is a source of drinking water for thousands.
ECT2 is also beginning a full-scale project to treat the wastewater of an undisclosed major chemical manufacturer at a site in northern Alabama.
There is currently no good place to put PFAS once they are removed from water or wastewater. Incinerating PFAS can release them into the atmosphere. When they end up in landfills, they can leach out again into ground or surface water, continuing the contamination cycle.
ECT2 has worked with a number of laboratories and technology companies to figure out which technology will work best to destroy PFAS. It has recently become “most bullish,” Woodard said, on what is called the hydrothermal alkaline treatment, or HALT, process that has “demonstrated complete destruction or very close to it.”
The process involves elevating the pH of a solution with PFAS and then breaking down the chemicals using high temperature and pressure. The reactor is made with proprietary metals designed to resist corrosion under high temperature, high pressure and high pH.
The method was invented by Timothy Strathmann, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines. A startup called Aquagga, based in Tacoma, Washington, is now working to commercialize the technology.
There are a variety of thermal treatments that use heat in different ways to break down PFAS molecules, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cautions that limited information exists on their overall efficacy, potential atmospheric emissions, operational conditions and costs.
But what makes HALT different, as evidenced by an EPA database of more than 2,000 test results for different thermal treatment techniques applied to various types of contamination, is that this particular technology has worked on all kinds of PFAS, including the compounds that are usually the most difficult to break down.
At the same time, current technology can’t test down to complete zero.
“I don’t think there is a true ‘zero’ concentration that someone can claim. Their claim is limited to the sensitivity of the methods they use to analyze PFAS or any other contaminant. Like other technologies, HALT can degrade PFAS to non-detectable levels with sufficient reaction time,” said Strathmann, who is the principal author of a pending patent for the technology.
In addition to HALT, Woodard said another promising destruction method uses sulfite and ultraviolet light.
While ECT2 could partner with others to apply newly created destruction technology at PFAS contamination sites, it has also created its own technology to remove and condense PFAS waste — a key step before the chemicals can be destroyed.
The carbon-fluorine bond makes PFAS chemicals extremely difficult to break down. Bacteria don’t eat them. Fire doesn’t destroy them. So they tend to accumulate — in the ground where they can leach into private wells, in the water processed by public water districts and in wastewater.
So for ECT2, the challenge back in 2014 was to figure out how best to capture the PFAS chemicals flowing through what can be millions of gallons of water or wastewater each day. Then it had to devise a series of concentration steps to get the PFAS waste into as manageable a volume as possible — and do so as sustainably as possible by reusing components of its treatment systems rather than throwing them away, Woodard said.
It discovered that ion exchange resins, basically tiny plastic beads with special engineered properties, worked best, removing more than four times as much PFAS per gram than a different popular treatment media, granular activated carbon. Contaminated water gets passed through what are usually big steel vessels with millions of these tiny beads, and the PFAS chemicals latch onto them.
But it wouldn’t be cost effective or sustainable to throw out millions of tiny plastic beads saturated with PFAS chemicals on a regular basis, so ECT2 wanted to figure out how to detach the PFAS chemicals so the beads could be reused. This was one of the most challenging problems, Woodard said. After scouring the literature and trying many different concoctions in the lab, the company found that a specific formula of alcohol, water and common table salt released PFAS from the beads.
By separating the beads, the company could then use a distillation process to recover and reuse the vast majority of the remaining solution. It also developed and patented a process called SuperLoading to take the leftover brine with highly concentrated PFAS and reduce the byproduct even further.
The first trial run of ECT2’s new PFAS removal technology, to compare its effectiveness with another treatment process using granular activated carbon, took place in 2015 and 2016 at the former air force base in New Hampshire, where years of using PFAS-filled spray foam used during firefighting training had contaminated land and water. Based on the results of the pilot test and the cost advantage, the air force chose to install ECT2’s newly patented technology to treat the area’s groundwater. It was the company’s first full-scale installation.
Operating since April 2018, the regenerable resin system at Pease has treated tens of millions of gallons of contaminated water and produced fewer than 50 gallons of PFAS waste, Woodard said. So far none of it has had to be removed from the site.
“Think of a million gallons of contaminated water coming into our system. Ultimately what that boils down to is about a gallon of solid PFAS waste. So think of it as a million-to-one reduction,” Woodard said.
The Australian defense department learned of the company’s technology. It was in such a hurry to solve some of its toughest PFAS challenges that it flew cargo planes to the United States to pick up the first two systems, Woodard said.
ECT2 — which Woodard had co-founded with Andy Bishop and Joe Gwarjanski as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Massachusetts firm Haley & Aldrich — was purchased by Montrose Environmental Group in 2019 to deploy its new technologies globally. It has installed or is currently constructing more than 350 treatment systems worldwide.
For Strathmann, with the Colorado School of Mines, the most promising direction for treating PFAS will combine technology that separates out and concentrates PFAS with a destruction technology.
In that way processes such as those developed by ECT2, “that can first concentrate the PFAS before applying destructive processes will be the most economical and environmentally sustainable solutions for complete elimination of PFAS contamination,” Strathmann said.
It’s unlikely that one technology will provide the answer to PFAS remediation in all situations, said Dale Clark, superintendent of the Anson-Madison Sanitary District, which is relying on ECT2 to devise a PFAS treatment and destruction solution for its wastewater plant that facilities across Maine and the nation can learn from.
“Through research and development, various technologies will need to be utilized together to remove and destroy these compounds. I feel confident we have a great team of engineers and scientists working to develop an efficient and environmentally responsible solution,” Clark said.
The advances of ECT2 should inspire other local talents, said one professor whose field of expertise centers on water treatment.
“As a Maine-based researcher it makes me proud to see Maine on the forefront of R&D in such a critical field. I work on fundamental aspects of PFAS remediation and think about sustainability, and ECT2 is working in the field to deploy novel ideas,” said Onur Apul, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maine.
For ECT2, there appears to be much urgent work ahead. The water company serving Fryeburg had to take a well offline after finding the chemicals at levels that exceeded the state standard. It turned to ECT2 to figure out a water treatment solution for the town ahead of the Fryeburg Fair in October.