Lithium-Ion Batteries Are an Unidentified and Growing Source of PFAS Pollution

7/9/24 Pratt School of Engineering

Lee Ferguson and colleagues discover that the manufacturing and disposal of lithium ion batteries is a large and growing source of environmental contamination from a sub-class of so-called "forever chemicals"

Lithium-Ion Batteries Are an Unidentified and Growing Source of PFAS Pollution

Since the discovery of GenX in the Cape Fear River in 2017, Lee Ferguson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University, has been a leading figure in sussing out other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) compounds in water supplies across North Carolina and the nation.

In a study published July 8 in Nature Communications, Ferguson and colleagues have identified the production and disposal of lithium-ion batteries as an increasing source of a troubling sub-class of PFAS contamination. Called bis-perfluoroalkyl sulfonimides (bis-FASIs), these chemicals show environmental persistence and ecotoxicity comparable to older notorious compounds like PFOA and GenX.

A man and woman in heavy jackets get a water sample from a snowy river
Lee Ferguson and Jennifer Guelfo retrieve water samples from a very cold Mississippi River

“We’ve discovered that an understudied type of PFAS or “forever chemicals” called bis-FASIs, such as those used in lithium-ion battery production, are an emerging issue not only for communities near manufacturing sites, but also anywhere these batteries are thrown away,” said Ferguson. “In North Carolina specifically, we’ve found these chemicals seeping from landfills into leachates, which highlights the need for more studies to assess the sources and spreading of these compounds here and across the country.”

The researchers sampled air, water, snow, soil and sediment near manufacturing plants in Minnesota, Kentucky, Belgium and France. The bis-FASI concentrations in these samples were commonly at parts per billion levels. The EPA recently set the maximum level for similar PFOA and PFOS compounds a thousand times lower at four parts per trillion.

Analysis of several municipal landfill leachates in the Southeastern US also revealed bis-FASI concentrations approaching one part per billion, indicating that these compounds can enter the environment through disposal of products including lithium-ion batteries.

Toxicity testing demonstrated that concentrations of bis-FAS similar to those found at the sampling sites can change behavior and fundamental energy metabolic processes of aquatic organisms. Bis-FASI toxicity has not yet been studied in humans, though other, more well-studied PFAS are linked to cancer, infertility and other serious health harms.

“Our results reveal a dilemma associated with manufacturing, disposal and recycling of clean energy infrastructure,” said author Jennifer Guelfo, associate professor of environmental engineering at Texas Tech University. “Slashing CO2 emissions with innovations like electric cars is critical, but it shouldn’t come with the side effect of increasing PFAS pollution.”

Treatability testing showed that bis-FASIs did not break down during oxidation, which has also been observed for other PFAS such as PFOS and highlights the persistence of this lesser-studied group of PFAS. However, data showed that concentrations of bis-FASIs in water could be reduced using granular activated carbon and ion exchange, methods that are already used to remove PFAS from drinking water.

“These results illustrate that treatment approaches designed for PFOA and PFOS can also remove bis-FASIs,” Ferguson said. “Use of these approaches is likely to increase as treatment facilities are upgraded to comply with newly enacted EPA Maximum Contaminant Levels for PFAS.”

This research was supported by the Ed and Linda Whitacre Faculty Fellowship at Texas Tech University, the Duke University Superfund Research Center (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences award number 5P42ES010356-21), and the North Carolina PFAS Testing Network.

CITATION: “Lithium-ion battery components are at the nexus of sustainable energy and environmental release of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.” Jennifer L. Guelfo , P. Lee Ferguson, Jonathan Beck, Melissa Chernick , Alonso Doria-Manzur, Patrick W. Faught, Thomas Flug, Evan P. Gray, Nishad Jayasundara, Detlef R.U. Knappe, Abigail S. Joyce, Pingping Meng &Marzieh Shojaei. Nature Communications, July 8, 2024. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-024-49753-5

Environmental Engineering at Duke

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