Princeton senior develops process that may one day cleanup PFAS

Written by
Molly Sharlach
Molly Sharlach, School of Engineering and Applied Science
May 29, 2024

The class of chemicals known as PFAS — used in firefighting foams, some nonstick cookware, and many other products — can resist heat and repel water. Their chemical bonds are hard to break, and they persist in water sources for decades. They have been associated with certain cancers and can cause immune and developmental damage to infants and children, among other dangers. 

For her thesis research, Princeton senior Amélie Lemay, a civil and environmental engineering major, has crafted computer simulations that could one day help lead the way to removing PFAS pollution from the environment. She used simulations to investigate how seven types of molecules behave above bodies of water, where the water meets the air. She modeled their tendencies to mix with water or stick to the water-air boundary, and probed how mixtures of PFAS molecules interact — mimicking the messy reality of contaminated water.

“Most of our drinking water treatment plants are not set up to deal with these compounds,” said Lemay. “This type of research can eventually lead to better ways to be able to take PFAS out of water.”

Her results have revealed that the contaminants’ movements are not limited only by physical space but also by complex charge interactions among neighboring PFAS molecules. Lemay hopes this understanding can inform strategies to clean up PFAS pollution.

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