Helios Innovations takes the fight against eternal chemicals • PFAS

INNOVATION

Johanna Gillberg at Helios Innovation's treatment plant that handles PFAS in Halmstad.

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The startup Helios Innovations has carried out its first major commercial water treatment of PFAS-filled extinguishing water. The solution concentrates the molecules to reduce the waste that needs to be burned.

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PFAS

PFAS, also called highly fluorinated substances, is a collective name for a substance group of more than 10,000 substances with varying properties and with a wide range of uses. They are organic substances that consist of a carbon chain where hydrogen atoms have been completely or partially replaced by fluorine atoms.

Common to the PFAS substances is that they are difficult to break down, high energy is required to break the molecular bonds. Some PFAS are also harmful to humans and the environment.

All PFAS are synthetically produced and have been used for, for example, dirt, grease or water-repellent properties. Many of the substances are also soluble in water, which means that they can easily spread in nature, as well as contaminate drinking water sources.

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Source: The Swedish Chemicals Agency

After fires have been fought, large quantities of extinguishing water are often left behind. Water that may contain high levels of PFAS and which, if not disposed of, can cause harm. Land areas exposed to large amounts of fire foam have been at the center of several high-profile cases of contaminated land and contaminated groundwater in recent years.

One company that wants to do something about this is Helios Innovations, which has installed its first two industrial units at Stena Recycling's facility in Halmstad. The water treatment company's technology is based on evaporation and they have several units to handle process water from industry.

Their test facility Ida, which stands on the roof of one of Stena's buildings, is specially adapted to handle PFAS-contaminated water. And now the first major commercial mission has been completed. 70 cubic meters of extinguishing water from an industrial fire has passed through Ida.

– We received our first extinguishing water in January and February 2024 and have achieved a reduction of 99.93 percent of PFAS34 in the water, says Johanna Gillberg, who is operational manager and co-founder of Helios Innovations.

The technology is based on evaporation

The start-up company's technology is based on evaporation. The incoming water flows through pleated cellulose blocks and is thus spread out over a larger area. Fans are on at the same time and everything is heated by waste heat.

In this way, the water evaporates little by little without the need for boiling temperatures, and in the end there is clean water, as well as water with more concentrated impurities. In order to purify the difficult-to-degrade molecules that are part of the PFAS group, they have adapted the plant, but it is the same basic principle as for other water.

– We reduce the volume by at least 90 percent. So from ten liters of incoming water, we get nine liters of clean water, as well as one liter of water where the PFAS chemicals have been concentrated, says Johanna Gillberg.

Jonathan Persson and Johanna Gillberg, Helios Innovation in Halmstad.


The water flows through a cellulose block to spread over a larger surface.

Helios Innovations has had the water analyzed before and after purification. Despite the high input values, the purified water ends up just above today's limit values ​​for PFAS in drinking water.

– The reason why we compare ourselves to the drinking water limit is that there are no other limit values. But these are the values ​​after our plant, then it goes through RO membranes and carbon filters at Stena's plant before the water goes out to sea, says Johanna Gillberg.

Incineration accepted to destroy PFAS

Today is often used activated carbon to clean PFAS-contaminated water. An advantage is that the molecules are then adsorbed into a compact mass that can be burned. A disadvantage is that it works better for PFAS with long carbon chains, i.e. many carbon atoms, but worse for PFAS with short carbon chains.

Something that has been discussed recently is whether the incineration used today to destroy PFAS actually works as intended.

– The only way that is accepted in the industry to destroy PFAS is high-temperature incineration. But what you are worried about is that the burning of the long chains leads to more short chains and that they are not broken down completely, says Johanna Gillberg.

She says that the short chains are not a problem in the same way today as the long ones are, which include the harmful PFOS. But that it is unclear what will happen if it is the case that the burning of long chains causes the short chains out in nature to increase.

– All PFAS are very mobile and travel all over the globe. But the short chains are more mobile than the long ones, she says.

Capacity of 3,000 cubic meters per year

In Sweden, Fortum Recycling & Waste handles PFAS waste and burns it in its facility in Kumla. Recently did Today's ETC tests of the water in the vicinity of Fortum's facility and were able to show elevated levels of PFAS in nearby water bodies.

– There are not enough studies on how PFAS is destroyed by burning and where it ends up, says Lutz Ahrens, professor of organic environmental chemistry at SLU, to Dagens ETC.

Research from Umeå University have also shown that PFAS can leach from stored waste awaiting incineration. New research from the same university also shows that PFAS occur in residual products from waste incineration such as ash and flue gases.

Jessica Cedervall, CEO of Fortum Recycling & Waste, has addressed concerns about Fortum's incineration highlighted in a debate article in the journal Sveriges Natur. She believes that there are clear laws in Sweden and regulations within the EU that are followed, and that the best known technology is used to burn PFAS substances. “We never take chances,” she writes in the debate article.

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HELIOS INNOVATION'S PFAS ANALYZES

Helios Innovations has commissioned an analysis where the concentration of 34 PFAS molecules has been measured before and after purification.

PFAS34 is the total concentration of the 34 molecules. Two other common concentrations that are often used to compare the PFAS content are PFAS4 and PFAS11, which sum up the concentration of 4 and 11 molecules, respectively.

Even the PFAS molecules that are sorted out, or concentrated, at Helios Innovations need to be sent for incineration. The advantage for their customers, however, is that it is only one liter instead of ten that needs to be burned, which when it comes to large amounts of extinguishing water can be a saving.

– We have capacity for 3,000 cubic meters of extinguishing water per year with Ida. What we have a problem with is attracting the right clientele. One reason for this is that the question of responsibility is rather unclear. After an industrial fire, it is the property owner who is responsible for the extinguishing water, but since it is something that does not happen all the time but is a one-off event, it can be difficult to know about. When burning, it generally costs around 8 to 10 kroner per kilo, so if you have 50 cubic meters of extinguishing water, it's still a penny, says Johanna Gillberg.

Due to the foaming properties, fire foam is usually more difficult to handle. Helios Innovations has now succeeded in purifying fire foam on an industrial scale and has recently received the company's first load of fire foam from a customer.

Subject

Unit

Original

Distillate

Reduction

AmountPFAS4ng/l22,86113.899.94%
AmountPFAS11ng/l184 20513799.93%
AmountPFAS34ng/l190,01014099.93%

From 2026, there will be legally binding limit values ​​for PFAS in drinking water. Then 4 ng/l PFAS4 and 90 ng/l PFAS21 apply. PFAS21 is also a summation of concentrations of individual PFAS molecules.

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