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

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As scientists and innovation advisors, we work with clients that need unbiased insights that impact their business, strategy, and product development. In our mission-driven innovation work, we look at the science around clients’ concerns and provide independent, evidence-based recommendations.

At the same time, we are also mothers, our most important role. And it is our role as mothers that motivated us to work at RTI International (RTI). We embrace our opportunity to promote RTI’s mission – our parent company – to improve the human condition.

Sometimes, we must weigh consumer perceptions and fears about the health effects of an emerging contaminant, not only with the science and actual risk but also with our concerns as parents. This was the case with earlier work on perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). Our client planned to use shorter chain PFCs they thought would be safer than longer chain PFCs. Through our work, we found the science was inconclusive. Using our insights, our client rethought their 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 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

In recent work, we supported our RTI colleagues who were tackling PFCs in a different project. RTI’s Center for Technology, Energy, the Environment, and Engineering works with a US-based global organization that used a type of PFC for fire suppression nationwide. As a result, the organization found the chemicals in its groundwater supplies. Because regulatory authorities have classified these chemicals as carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, this discovery is alarming. While membrane separation techniques can remove PFCs from water, 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. In collaboration with Yale University, we assessed novel silicon carbide-based photocatalysts’ ability 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.
  • is designed to be modular and achieve near complete degradation of the target compounds faster thanbiological treatment.
  • avoids the need for costly ion exchange resins and creation of concentrated by-product streams that can be difficult to treat.
  • 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 perfluorinated chemicals is complex and requires additional research. Through our mission-driven innovation 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 mission-driven innovation is not simply creating a product for a new product’s sake. Rather, when innovating, we look at what can be immensely complicated topics, distil the research, consider implications for the future, and propose 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.


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