Manufacturers responsible for producing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — found in everything from cooking utensils to food packaging to paint to firefighting foam — should consider themselves on notice. Just ask 3M and DuPont, Chemours and Corteva, already on the hook for billions of dollars to clean up water supplies.
In fall 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will set new guidance for what levels of these "forever" chemicals can be tolerated in the nation’s drinking water. PFAS have been linked to human health issues including decreased fertility rates, immune system deficiencies and certain cancers.
As the nickname suggests, these substances linger for a long time, and their presence isn’t isolated. As of March, close to 2,900 U.S. communities were reporting levels higher than the proposed EPA maximum, according to this interactive map by nonprofit EWG.
It will take billions to clean things up
A pool of money — $9 billion over five years — was set aside for detection and cleanup as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law enacted in November 2021. But that’s just a drop in the bucket for what could be spent in the coming years by communities and corporations as part of a fast-growing market for PFAS remediation solutions.
One startup angling for a portion of that revenue is Boston-based synthetic biology company Allonnia, which extended its Series A round by $30 million in mid-July. The infusion was led by Bison Ventures and a group of investors affiliated with the mining sector, such as Valen Ventures and BHP Ventures.
Allonnia is developing biological organisms for breaking down waste and eradicating the bad stuff — everything from mine tailings to plastics to groundwater and soil contaminants such as PFAS.
The solutions are in the soils that we walk on every day.
"Global waste is a massive liability to human and ecological health, and many of today’s solutions are cost-inhibitive or ineffective at scale," said Bison Ventures’ founding partner, Tom Biegala, in a statement. "That’s why we were excited to see how much Allonnia has accomplished in two short years and are bullish on the solutions facing our planet and our industry. Biotech and engineering solutions have great potential to move us closer to a waste-free world."
In January, Allonnia collaborated with EPOC Enviro to start selling 4never, a closed-loop approach to removing PFAS before it is discharged into municipal water supplies. The target customers include landfills and industrial wastewater treatment facilities. Two other companies are part of the collaboration: Revive Environmental, which has developed a system called PFAS Annihilator, and environment services company Heritage-Crystal Clean.
Allonnia is also working on a biosensor that will help with "near real-time screening" of PFAS in water, as well as microbe-based technology for degrading a known carcinogen, 1,4-dioxane, and turning it into water and carbon dioxide.
The startup’s capital infusion was motivated in large part by the market potential for PFAS remediation, which is being driven by regulation both at the federal and state level, Allonnia CEO Nicole Richards told me. "There is a huge push to put the liability on the manufacturer. If they don’t pay, then municipalities will have to pay, and many don’t have the budget for it." The new money will help Allonnia double its headcount this year to about 40 employees.
From zero to billions
Communities and utilities could spend an estimated $6.2 billion this decade on PFAS remediation, according to Bluefield Research, and the market could reach $1 billion annually by 2030.
There’s every reason to believe corporations will be expected to pay up. In June, 3M, DuPont and two of its spinoff companies (Chemours and Corteva) revealed multi-billion-dollar settlements to clean up drinking water contamination linked to their products. 3M’s $10.3 billion resolution as part of multidistrict litigation in South Carolina covers about 300 communities, while the DuPont affiliates are on the hook for $1.2 billion in another set of cases. There are thousands of pending claims.
Some of the biggest names in wastewater treatment are positioning themselves for that opportunity. Minneapolis-based Ecolab paid $3.7 billion in 2021 for Purolite, which uses ion exchange resins for separating chemicals from industrial water so that it can be reused for other purposes. Veolia and Suez, which merged in March 2022, are likewise building capacity to detect and eliminate PFAS through filtration systems.
Another startup working on PFAS remediation technology is Aquagga of Tacoma, Washington, which has raised close to $5 million in seed money and grants. The company is refining a hydrothermal reaction to break down PFAS, and is beginning field trials this year. Also keep your eyes on Cyclopure of Chicago. It has reportedly raised almost $10 million for PFAS adsorbent technology, sold in filtration systems for both homes and industrial applications.
What makes Allonnia’s approach unique is that it’s relying on nature for the solution, with organisms found in soil, according to Richards. "If there were no humans on the planet, we would have a healthy planet over time,” she said. "The solutions are in the soils that we walk on every day."