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Key to detecting forever chemicals could involve this common mineral

UB chemist Luis Colon works in his lab in the Natural Sciences Complex. Colon is principal investigator on an NSF grant to develop adsorbent materials for detecting forever chemicals. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published January 23, 2024

Luis Colón pictured in his lab.
“We cannot determine quantities of pollutants in the environment — or eventually extract them — until we have the right materials. ”
Luis Colón, SUNY Distinguished Professor and A. Conger Goodyear Professor
Department of Chemistry

When it comes to forever chemicals, it doesn’t take much to do harm to humans and the environment. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency says some of these near-indestructible chemicals can even pose risks at currently undetectable levels.

That’s why improving detection methods is crucial both now and in the years to come, as the chemical compounds are likely to be found in more places and linked to more health defects.

UB chemist Luis Colón has received a $457,080 National Science Foundation grant to do just that. As principal investigator, Colón will develop adsorbent materials that can enhance the detection of forever chemicals and other pollutants at low levels within water samples.

“We cannot determine quantities of pollutants in the environment — or eventually extract them — until we have the right materials,” says Colón, SUNY Distinguished Professor and A. Conger Goodyear Professor in the Department of Chemistry. “Our materials should be able to concentrate particular pollutants and allow us to analyze them at very low quantities.”

Forever chemicals, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are a group of manmade compounds that have been widely used in consumer products for decades and can take hundreds or even thousands of years to break down. Linked to ailments like cancer and infertility, PFAS are believed to be in at least 45% of the nation’s drinking water and in the blood of practically every American.

There are more than 15,000 types of PFAS, according to the National Institutes of Health, yet only a tiny fraction can be picked up by lab tests.

Colón’s detection method involves silica, a compound of silicon and the major component of sand. Colón has been working with these minerals since he started at UB in 1993, but these new materials, organo-silica, will be fine-tuned for adsorbing PFAS and other compounds of interest.

Luis Colón works with a student in his lab. Graduate and undergraduate students will be involved in the adsorbent materials research. Photo: Douglas Levere

“It's not just pure silica — it’s what we call an organic-inorganic hybrid material,” he says. “We have an inorganic component reacted together with an organic component in a single step, producing the hybrid-silica. This results in a material that is more hydrolytically stable and can withstand conditions of both relatively low pH and relatively high pH.”

The materials will be more porous than typical silica, thus increasing the surface area that PFAS can adhere to. They’ll also be covered in magnetic nanoparticles that will allow them to be used in magnetic solid-phase extraction, a time-saving process that involves using a magnet to remove adsorbent materials from a solution.

“Having these magnetic particles is very useful because it keeps the phase in solution without using membranes or filters,” Colón says.

The materials will also be conducive for multimodal separations, which separates a sample based on multiple kinds of chemical interactions at once and enhances the retention of certain compounds.

In addition to PFAS, the materials will also be tuned to adsorb pharmaceuticals, like antibiotics. Antibiotic residues in wastewater can cause bacteria to become resistant to the medications, making infections harder to treat.

Graduate and undergraduate students will participate in the research, including those from traditionally underrepresented groups. Colón has been a champion of such students, helping recruit dozens from his native Puerto Rico to study or conduct summer research at UB. Colón, who is also associate dean for inclusive excellence in the College of Arts and Sciences, received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from then-President Barack Obama in 2015.

He hopes the organo-silica materials could eventually even be used to remove pollutants from the environment. Still, just detecting them is a key first step.

“In the past, we simply didn't have tools that could tell us these chemicals weren’t degrading in the environment. Chemicals we perhaps may not consider pollutants today may become one 10 years from now,” Colón says. “So having the proper technology to determine what is there is very important. We must learn to deal with the situations that we have inherited.”