Trichloroethylene—a degreasing agent fre­quently used for mil­i­tary and indus­trial applications—has seeped into ground­water around the world, with serious health con­se­quences. Sci­en­tists have thus far had little suc­cess in reducing the wide­spread con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of trichloroeth­ylene through biore­me­di­a­tion, chem­ical reduc­tion, and oxi­da­tion. But now three North­eastern researchers—members of one of Northeastern’s federally-​​funded research centers—are devel­oping an elec­tro­chem­ical tech­nique has the poten­tial to address the problem.

Post­doc­toral researcher Lily Rajic and doc­toral can­di­dates Noushin Fal­lah­pour and Ali Ciblak work in Northeastern’s PROTECT Center, a research col­lab­o­ra­tion between the Col­lege of Engi­neering, Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, the Uni­ver­sity of Michigan, and the Uni­ver­sity of Puerto Rico. Funded by the National Insti­tute for Envi­ron­mental Health Sci­ences, PROTECT brings together experts in engi­neering, public health, and bio­med­ical and envi­ron­mental sci­ences to study the rela­tion­ship between expo­sure to envi­ron­mental con­t­a­m­i­na­tion and preterm birth. The center focuses on Puerto Rico, as the U.S. ter­ri­tory is dis­pro­por­tion­ately impacted by a preterm birth rate one-​​and-​​a-​​half times that of the overall U.S. and an exten­sive legacy of contamination.

Rajic, Fal­lah­pour, and Ciblak are devel­oping a solar-​​powered device that uses direct cur­rent to spark a chem­ical reac­tion that will trans­form trichloroeth­ylene into an inac­tive sub­stance. What dif­fer­en­ti­ates this con­cept from com­peti­tors are the min­imal power require­ments and cheap mate­rials; these enable the device to be placed in remote loca­tions at little expense.

It’s impor­tant that our solu­tion is low-​​cost and can run off the grid, given the number of con­t­a­m­i­nated sites and the wide­spread nature of the problem,” Rajic said.

The breadth of ground­water con­t­a­m­i­na­tion means that the system must be simple and self-​​sustaining, according to Fal­lah­pour. “The work is not going to make much of an impact if what we develop is some­thing that everyday people won’t be able to use,” Fal­lah­pour said.

The research team has pre­sented its work at sev­eral con­fer­ences this year, including the PROTECT-​​hosted Inter­na­tional Sym­po­sium on Elec­tro­ki­netic Reme­di­a­tion and the Sym­po­sium on Water Inno­va­tion in Mass­a­chu­setts, both held at North­eastern last month. The con­fer­ences served as an oppor­tu­nity for the researchers to get crit­ical feed­back on their project from industry and aca­d­emic experts and develop part­ner­ships once their work moves from the lab­o­ra­tory to the field for testing.

We’re making a lot of progress on our methods and design and we’re get­ting very excited about moving our work out into the field as soon as pos­sible,” Rajic said. “This is impor­tant work, and I really believe we have a solu­tion that can make a difference.”