In 2016, Envirolab Services and collaborators from the University of Tasmania (UTAS) and J3Seven (KDAA at the time), applied for a Cooperative Research Centres Projects (CRC-P) grant to fund the development of a field portable PFAS analyser.
Funding was awarded in February 2017 based on a 3-year project plan involving the three participants. Contributors included technical staff from each entity, postdoctoral researchers, PhD students, software/hardware engineers and back-office staff to manage the regular financial reporting.
The CRC-P structure was relatively new at the time so there was a steep initial learning-curve in managing the project, meeting milestones and reporting accurate quarterly data to the Australian Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (Department). The Department has since accepted the project has achieved the agreed milestones in the initial CRC-P grant application!
Specifically, the Department noted the following key achievements:
- Development of a portable Capillary Electrophoresis – Capacitively-Coupled Contactless Conductivity Detection (CE-C4D) system for the field detection of Per- and Poly-Fluorinated Substances (PFAS) in soil and water.
- Development of novel chemistries for the Capillary Electrophoresis (CE) separation of PFAS, including the evaluation of non-aqueous solvents in novel polymer capillary systems to differentiate PFAS molecules from each other and from common ions often found in water samples and soil sample extracts.
- Development of two novel protocols for field-purification of PFAS from soil and water.
- Development and construction of a TRL8 (Technology Readiness Level (TRL)) portable CE-C4D instrument with a unique fluid handling system that ensures compatibility with the non-aqueous solvents needed, as well as using non-fluorinated material to avoid background contamination.
- Construction of a second field-deployed prototype featuring fully-integrated solid-phase extraction, the only known portable CE instrument, which is known to have been developed with this capability.
- Ability to collect field results with the prototype system within 60 minutes of set-up on site.
- Field detection and analysis of the three regulated PFAS to regulatory standards (Public Open Space and Industrial), although most analytes were very close to the quantitation limit.
- Demonstration of acceptable field performance of the CE-C4D system, and evidence for its applicability to screen PFAS contamination at some sites, noting that further research would likely improve the correlation with the gold standard method i.e. LC-MSMS (Liquid Chromatography tandem Mass Spectrometer) and potentially improve the limits of quantitation.
Final TRL8 prototype in use in the field
The unit weighs <10kgs and can run from solar energy. Smartphone and tablet control is also available.
Overhead view of the final prototype
With auto-SPE – further space optimisation is possible!
Electropherogram showing the separation of 12 PFAS
Internal standards and surrogate (x-axis in ms – 10 min separation). 100ppb equates to 4ppb in the sample before SPE enrichment.
The developed PFAS separation chemistry is unique, the software and hardware are beyond anything available in a portable CE format and the Auto-SPE works well mechanically (not an easy feat!). PFAS are surfactants and therefore have polar and non-polar properties like soap. Therefore, they do present unusual challenges for sample analysis and concentration.
The project has given Envirolab and partners experiences in trying to overcome research challenges in a collaborative environment and also grant-funded project management with a variety of individuals from research and commercial backgrounds. We are in discussions with a potential commercialisation partner to hopefully see the research outcomes become a commercial reality!
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