Read the full article by Sarah Hays (Iowa State University College of Engineering News)

“Known as ‘forever chemicals,’ per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are compounds that impact our lives daily. Waterproof, durable, and long-lasting, PFAS are commonly used to repel water and grease. The chemicals are found in Teflon™-coated pans, fast food wrappers, and even in the firefighting industry.

While PFAS have many useful applications, they are proven to be highly toxic, causing harm to the human body and ecosystems. And now, they are embedded in society.

Even though PFAS are extremely prevalent in today’s environment, there are few ways to clearly identify them. Joe Charbonnet, Iowa State University Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering researcher and assistant professor, is creating a way for scientists around the world to communicate the characteristics of compounds they come across using one of the main PFAS identification methods – high-resolution mass spectrometry.

‘PFAS are seen in ScotchGard™, popcorn bags and similar finished surfaces. They all consist of a carbon bonded to multiple fluorine atoms as part of their chemical structure,’ Charbonnet said. ‘This project is about developing a more clear way for scientists to communicate when they have discovered a new PFAS. These are a big concern in the world right now because they are toxic, they last for a long time, and they build up in our bodies, making them a very urgent area of research.’

There are over 6,000 known types of PFAS. Sometimes the structure of the PFAS makes it easy to identify. But sometimes, it’s a little more complicated.

‘It can be very clear – occasionally scientists can say, ‘I know exactly what the structure of the compound is’ in one test, and those are the easy cases,’ Charbonnet said. ‘But that’s not the case for most.’

Using a strictly pure ‘example’ molecule called a certified analytical reference standard, the scientist can test the PFAS sampled to a different PFAS that has already been discovered. This is one of the clearest ways to confidently identify a compound: If the compounds match, it is almost certain that the PFAS the scientist brought in is the same compound in the lab. But of the over 6,000 PFAS in existence, less than 100 of them have a certified exact match to compare to. Because of the high reliability, but low availability of this comparison method, scientists have been developing new ways to identify compounds that appear to be PFAS.”…