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5 startups fighting 'forever chemicals'

It's generations too late to keep toxic PFAS out of the environment. A clutch of startups is developing methods for eliminating these ‘forever chemicals’.

Revive Environmental's PFAS Annihilator technology fits into a shipping container.

Revive Environmental's PFAS Annihilator technology fits into a shipping container.

Like other toxic pollution that inspires outrage and regulation, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS for short and often referred to as "forever chemicals" because they do not degrade or dissolve over time — offer business opportunities. Startups are rushing to clean up these immortal compounds, which appear in nearly every body and ecosystem where they've been measured. 

PFAS pervade products throughout your home — including cookware, waterproof jackets and dental floss — and are tied to cancers, infertility and learning disabilities. 

In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a rule requiring companies to report small releases of PFAS, following its spring proposal of standards to track a handful of the compounds in drinking water. Anti-PFAS policies are on the books in 25 states, and the European Union and China are considering restrictions. 

What gets rid of some 15,000 types of chemicals that seem to poison everything, everywhere, all at once? Established remediation businesses filter out PFAS from ground and water. However, the PFAS is then incinerated or buried, re-joining groundwater and air. 

A new crop of companies seeks to demolish the chemicals by unzipping the tight carbon and fluorine bonds that give PFAS their water-, grease- and fire-resistant properties. Here’s a closer look at five of them.

Revive Environmental

The challenge: Many researchers are destroying PFAS in lab tests but haven’t ramped up. Columbus, Ohio, startup Revive Environmental says it is scaling the destruction of all types of PFAS.

The pitch: Revive’s mobile technology destroys 99.99 percent of short- and long-chain PFAS with intense pressure and heat. Inside its PFAS Annihilator shipping containers, supercritical water oxidation reduces the toxic compounds to EPA-safe levels for drinking water.

Tailwinds: Research nonprofit Batelle spun off Revive Environmental in January with Viking Global Investors. Revive CEO David Trueba, formerly of Evoqua Water Technologies, calls the company "comfortably capitalized." Revive is shipping six more PFAS Annihilator units by January and plans to run 50 more by 2025, he said.

What's unique: Revive is not the only company with mobile units dismantling PFAS, but it has reached commercial scale quicker than most.

Aquagga

The challenge: Aquagga says it can continuously clean up soil and water from industrial, government and municipal sites rife with PFAS.

The pitch: "We are consistently top-ranked as one of the cleanest and most energy-efficient processes for PFAS destruction," said Aquagga CEO Nigel Sharp. The Tacoma, Washington, startup says it destroys more than 99 percent of PFAS in water through a patented hydrothermal alkaline treatment that produces no toxic byproducts or air emissions.

Tailwinds: Launched in 2019, Aquagga has $8 million in funding. The public benefit corporation spun out of the University of Washington, the University of Alaska and the Colorado School of Mines. Aquagga won an EPA PFAS-destruction challenge in 2020.

What’s unique: Aquagga has two operational units, including one funded by the EPA. A third, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is due to come online next spring.

Aclarity

The challenge: Half of all PFAS are found in landfills, according to Aclarity. Rain washes the chemicals back into the water cycle. 

The pitch: Aclarity says it has the first "full-scale" approach to eradicate all types of PFAS. Its modular systems treat landfill leachate continuously through electrochemical oxidation, which sends a current through a PFAS-laden solution. Each 20-foot unit treats 24 gallons of landfill sludge per minute in one pass, according to CEO Julie Bliss Mullen.

Tailwinds: Mullen spun off Aclarity in 2017 from a PhD project at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The Mansfield, Massachusetts, company of 25 has raised $20.5 million, including a Series A $16 million in November. It won Imagine H2O’s Urban Water Challenge last year.

What's unique: Aclarity seeks to install permanent sites in the U.S. and Europe. "The combination of low energy and low-cost parts…keeps the cost significantly down," Mullen said.

Allonnia

The challenge: Attempts to remove and eliminate PFAS are often energy- and chemical-intensive. Allonnia seeks to harness biology to zap the compounds at large sites such as landfills, airports and water treatment plants.

The pitch: "Nature is the most elegant solution to many of today’s most urgent environmental concerns and works in a circular versus linear economy," CEO Nicole Richards said. "As an example, over time nature will evolve to break down foreign materials present including man-made contaminants. This is the starting point that Allonnia uses to develop solutions to break down PFAS."

Tailwinds: The Boston-based synbio startup has raised $90 million, including a $30 million Series A round in July. Allonnia sprang in 2020 out of the Ferment Consortium, an investment arm of biotech company Gingo Bioworks, launched in 2008 by five MIT scientists. 

What’s unique: Allonnia says that although "blunt tools" of bioremediation using natural organisms are established, it hopes to dial up and speed up the natural processes by which bacteria or fungi eat chemicals including PFAS, minimizing the use of energy and chemicals. 

Claros Technologies

The challenge: Claros Technologies seeks to close the loop on PFAS in wastewater, landfill leachate and sites polluted by firefighting foams. 

The pitch: Claros says its mini-fridge-size system destroys 99.99 percent of PFAS in water with ultraviolet light and chemistry technology that’s easy to retrofit into water filtration systems. "Furthermore, we go simply beyond ‘destruction’ of PFAS, and instead use the term ‘defluorination’ which refers to the (destruction) of every carbon fluorine bond," said VP of Research and Development John Brockgreitens, describing a "green chemistry" approach that leaves no toxic byproducts.

Tailwinds: The Minneapolis-based company of 25 raised a Series A $5.5 million in 2021 and expects to close a B round this year. It grew out of research at the University of Minnesota funded by the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Defense. CEO and co-founder Michelle Bellanca is a former global business director at 3M.

What's unique: Claros’s bottle-shaped "elemental destruction system" works at room temperature to destroy PFAS in batches of water within several hours. The company is designing large systems to treat 30 gallons of water per minute. Claros plans for a continuous flow mobile unit to run by the end of 2024.

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