A grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is helping a multi-disciplinary team at Hope College explore the possibility of taking from the lab to the marketplace a new test for identifying widely used compounds that are increasingly scrutinized for their environmental impact.
The award through the NSF’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program is supporting the Hope group in exploring demand for a rapid screening test it developed to detect the presence of per- and polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs) in consumer products. The new method reduces the time it takes to test a sample from days to minutes.
The initiative is led by Dr. Graham Peaslee, who is the Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry, Schaap Research Fellow and professor of geology/environmental science, and includes Dr. Peter Boumgarden, assistant professor of management; and graduating Hope senior Evelyn Ritter, a mechanical engineering major from Libertyville, Illinois, who has been active in entrepreneurship programs through the college’s Center for Faithful Leadership.
“There aren’t many schools that could pursue a project like this on their own, especially not small schools like Hope,” said Peaslee, who co-leads the Hope research team that developed the testing process. “It’s possible here because of the strength and breadth of our programs, and the emphasis that Hope places on collaboration between disciplines.”
PFCs are encountered in multiple products used regularly. After more than 50 years in existence, they are also found in places not intended.
“Generally PFCs are used in stain- or water-resistant applications, such as outdoor clothing, food packaging, and non-stick coatings on carpets and upholstery, although new PFCs are becoming prevalent in cosmetics and low-odor paints,” Peaslee said.
“PFCs in consumer products have come under increasing scrutiny recently, because of their persistence in the environment and the ability to bioaccumulate,” he said. “You even see it in polar bear blood. If you’re getting it in polar bears, you’re getting it everywhere in the food chain.” A 2003-04 study of people in the U.S. found PFCs in the blood of 98 percent of those tested.
“Clearly, this is an emerging chemical class of concern, and efforts have begun to monitor its prevalence in both the environment and in human exposure pathways,” he said.
According to Peaslee, researchers around the world continue to study the impact of PFCs on animals and humans. He noted that some studies have found probable links between high exposure to PFCs and diseases such as kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy induced hypertension and hypercholesterolemia.
Testing might serve a variety of purposes. For example, a manufacturer might wish to confirm whether or not raw materials contain a PFC, or an organization might wish to determine whether or not a product that it plans to purchase contains a PFC.
Typically, the team explained, such testing has required the use of extensive laboratory work including solvent extraction, liquid chromatography and tandem mass spectroscopy that require days to complete. The method developed at Hope uses the college’s particle accelerator to check within a few minutes for a single chemical, fluorine, that is found in PFCs. Because fluorine rarely occurs elsewhere at such levels, its presence indicates the presence of a PFC.
“The proposed tool can revolutionize the testing industry with respect to testing for PFCs in consumer products and environmental samples,” said Boumgarden, whose research focuses on innovation in organizations, including the development of new technology, and who serves as a consultant for a variety of external groups and companies. “This model will allow more manufacturers, retailers, regulatory agencies and consumer groups to test for PFCs that represent a risk to human health.”
The method does require the use of a particle accelerator, which isn’t a common instrument. Peaslee estimates that there are approximately 60 of them in the U.S., a dozen of which could easily accommodate the type of work involved.
“It means that there’s an opportunity for people that have accelerators to provide this kind of service, which could then provide a revenue stream for those particular institutions,” Boumgarden said. “The process as a whole creates a mutually beneficial link between the university and the market, a value that might extend eventually beyond PFC-testing alone.”
Hope has had its current Pelletron particle accelerator, acquired by Peaslee with an NSF grant, since 2004. The college had previously operated a Van de Graaff accelerator for 30 years.
Hope researchers developed the new testing method about a year ago. It grew out of an ongoing research program conducted for the past 20 years by the college’s Nuclear Group, an interdisciplinary collaboration between the college’s chemistry and physics programs led by Peaslee and Dr. Paul DeYoung, who is the Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of Physics at Hope.
The NSF established the I-Corps program to foster entrepreneurship that will lead to the commercialization of technology that has been supported previously by NSF-funded research. In addition to having provided grant funding for the college’s particle accelerator, the NSF has also awarded grants for research at Hope using the instrument.
The I-Corps award, which totals $50,000, will support the team through December in exploring market interest in the testing process and in developing a potential business model. Ritter will work full-time on the project for the duration of the grant period, with Peaslee and Boumgarden participating in addition to their other work at the college. Activities include opportunities arranged through the NSF for training and regular meetings with external experts who can provide additional support.