Nebraska’s Nirupam Aich is developing ways to limit the dangerous impacts of “forever chemicals” on the world.
Aich, who joined the College of Engineering in January as associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, has gained international attention for his research using nanomaterials in water treatment processes that could remove per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances that don’t degrade easily.
In 2022, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Aich was awarded a National Science Foundation Early Career Development Program grant for $500,000 to aid in developing a filtration system for treating water contaminated by PFAS — which are commonly found in Teflon, non-stick cooking pans, electronics, plastic food packaging, firefighting foams and many hydrophobic coatings. That research is continuing at Nebraska.
“My research mainly focuses on advanced materials and advanced nanomaterials for water treatment. We look at different emerging contaminants, particularly PFAS, and how to remove them using nanotechnology and nanomaterials,” he said. “For environmental solutions, we want to make sure these nanomaterials don’t become a problem later, so that’s why we are making safer-by-design nanomaterials for water treatment and environmental limitation.”
Nanomaterials have been researched for water treatment for decades but, Aich said, the challenge is nanomaterials manufacturable for water treatment and effective for PFAS treatment.
“The problem with PFAS is that they are very difficult to degrade in the natural environment or by microorganisms,” Aich said. “They have strong carbon fluorine bonds, and breaking them is important, which is why we are using 3D-printed nanomaterials to break these bonds.
“And with the unique water filtration device we are developing, we will be able to take PFAS from water and break them into non-toxic forms.”
The range of toxic effects that PFAS pose to humans is broad, ranging from myriad diseases — including cancers (particularly thyroid cancer) — as well as fertility issues among men and neurodevelopmental disorders in children. The Environmental Protection Agency designated PFAS as a national priority pollutant and in March 2023 announced a regulatory limit for the two most prevalent types of PFAS to ensure drinking water safety.
Reaching the EPA’s goals for PFAS limits requires innovative technologies because the current technologies either are cost-prohibitive or in-effective, Aich said. His group is working on several nanotechnologies that can effectively destroy PFAS from water and wastewater and those projects are currently supported by funding from NSF, National Institute of Health and the Department of Defense.
Aich’s research efforts on important environmental pollution issues and nanotechnology have not gone unnoticed. Recently, Aich received an invitation to participate in an oral history interview with the Science History Institute. The institute is a library, museum and center for scholarship dedicated to promoting historical understanding of the sciences.
The institute’s Center for Oral History has a mission to preserve the history of science and engineering by recording interviews that feature the thoughts, memories and perspectives “of individuals central to the modern scientific endeavor.” The collection includes more than 700 interviews that include Nobel laureates, National Academy members, National Medal recipients and other researchers whose work has impacted the scientific community.
The center is also highlighting experiences and contributions of immigrant scientists through its “Oral Histories of Immigration and Innovation” project. Aich said the center has expressed interest in talking about his experiences growing up in Bangladesh and his work to protect public health through water quality engineering and physical-chemical treatment of drinking water and wastewater.
“In the College of Engineering, we are in a very exciting time of growth, and that’s why I’m here,” Aich said. “I’m excited about working with my environmental engineering colleagues, who are doing extraordinary research in many different aspects of environmental pollution and public-health protection, and my work fits in.
“We can help Nebraska in first understanding this emerging contaminant pollution, then fighting this pollution even before it happens. Then if we develop those technologies and a resilient infrastructure, that can help the world, too, because it’s a global problem.”