Mission-Driven Innovation: A Mother’s Perspective on Perfluorinated Chemicals

As scientists and innovation advisors, we often work with commercial clients that need unbiased insights that impact their business, strategy, and product development. We pride ourselves on looking at the science around clients’ concerns and providing independent, evidence-based recommendations. We are also mothers. We consider this role our most important, and it motivated us to work at RTI International. As we look into our children’s eyes, we embrace our role promoting RTI’s mission of improving the human condition.

There are times when we must weigh consumer perceptions and fears about health effects of an emerging contaminant not only with the science and its actual risk, but also with our concerns as parents. This was the case with our work on perfluorinated chemicals we discussed in our earlier post. Our client had planned to use shorter chain PFCs they thought would be safer than longer chain PFCs. Through our work we found the science was inconclusive and our client used our insights to rethink its approach to PFCs. On a personal level this was more than simply a day’s work. We put our heart and soul into our research because we saw our children — our future — in it.

Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are concerning because these molecules have been shown to have many negative health effects including changes in fertility, cholesterol levels, and thyroid hormone levels; reduced birth weight; and a relation to ADHD. In fact, recent studies suggest that nearly everyone in the general population has detectable levels of PFCs in their blood.1

Innovative environmental cleanup

More recently, we supported our RTI International colleagues in work to tackle the issue of PFCs in a different project. RTI’s Center for Technology, Energy, the Environment, and Engineering has been working with a US-based global organization that used a type of PFC for fire suppression in facilities nationwide. As a result, the organization found the chemicals in its groundwater supplies, and this is a concern because regulatory authorities have classified these chemicals as carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. While the PFCs can be removed from water with membrane separation techniques, there is no reliable treatment for destroying the molecules. These compounds resist chemical and biological degradation and remain in the environment.

The client contacted RTI for cleanup assistance and we collaborated with Yale University to assess the ability of novel silicon carbide-based photocatalysts to destroy PFC compounds to achieve target water quality and reduce the time required for site cleanup and closure. The process uses this novel photocatalyst in existing pilot-scale reverse osmosis and ultraviolet reactor systems. It is designed to be modular and achieve near complete degradation of the target compounds faster than in situ biological treatment. The process also avoids the need for costly ion exchange resins and creation of concentrated by-product streams that can be difficult to treat and reduces costs and electrical energy demand by a factor of 10. Our team anticipates that this process will apply to other areas of environmental cleanup.

Ultimately, the issue of PFCs is complex and requires additional research. Through our work, we built one client’s awareness of the issue and defined a path forward to help them address concerns related to PFCs; for another RTI is working on a novel approach to PFC cleanup.

Solving innovation challenges with our mission in mind

This is why we love working on innovation at RTI. True innovation is not simply creating a product for a new product’s sake, rather it is looking at what can be immensely complicated topics, distilling the research, considering implications for the future, and then proposing a response or solution that considers the entirety of evidence. As mothers and scientists, we are proud to collaborate with clients to solve their toughest innovation challenges, and support RTI’s mission of translating science for the global good.

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27152447

About the Authors

Jamie Pero-Parker, Ph.D., focuses on open innovation and technology commercialization and has experience in green, bioanalytical, and biophysical chemistry. She leads technology and business intelligence scouting initiatives, strategic technology and market analysis, commercialization assessments, partnership identification and development, and technology scouting training. Jamie also works with clients to create, augment, and manage new product ideas from various technology platforms. She is most interested in using open innovation to create more sustainable technologies and products, and strives to incorporate a green element into her work. Jamie has a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a B.S in Chemistry of the University of Utah.

Alison Sykes, Ph.D., assesses technologies for commercial potential, performs market research, and creates commercialization strategies for high-potential technologies, and has experience in technology areas including antimicrobials/pesticides, controlled-release technologies, new and emerging coatings and materials. Her background includes organometallic chemistry from her work as a research associate while completing her Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry and water disinfection from her postdoctoral associate position, both from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She has a B.S. in Chemistry from Washington and Lee University.

Originally published at rtiinnovationadvisors.org.

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