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The triboreactor as breakthrough remediation strategy for safeguarding human and environmental health

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - triboREMEDY (The triboreactor as breakthrough remediation strategy for safeguarding human and environmental health)

Reporting period: 2021-09-01 to 2023-05-31

The key concept of triboREMEDY project is to use mechanical energy tribolysis to face two important environmental problems. The safe and sustainable elimination of hazardous chemicals (such as persistent organic pollutants) from the environment and the inactivation of harmful microorganisms from water. The benefit of this technology is that it allows to obtain environmental remediation without releasing undesired byproducts into the environment and avoiding the use of consumables per se. The systems works on the basis of controllable parameters, adjustable according to the selected application. This novel concept is based on the use of mechanical energy to generate controlled chemical reactions and/or to inactivate microscopic biological organisms.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are extremely carcinogenic chemical compounds that were previously employed in industrial and consumer goods. The production of these compounds was prohibited all around the world through the Stockholm Convention in 2001. They were mainly utilized as dielectric and coolant fluids for electrical equipment.
It took over 10 years for the destruction of 3 million tonnes of PCB stockpiles globally. However, there are still 14 million tons of contaminated materials that need to be destructed and would take almost 60 years to eliminate all currently known PCBs stockpiles, while the country inventories are still being updated. Even though the technological advancement could increase disposal rate of these materials, the complexity of the treatment is also increasing with the time due to the type of equipment that are not yet treated. During the last years, the decontamination was mainly focused on the transformer of big size, which are relatively easier to treat because of logistic reasons. What is more complicated to treat are the transformer of small and medium size, which should represent indicatively the 40% of the total volume of contaminated substances. Another factor that is slowing down the decontamination process is the cross contamination. A practice used in the past and still used is the refilling of new oil in contaminated equipment.

The TriboREMEDY project, developed a systems for the degradation of the PCBs and it was demontrated that it is able to generate dehalogenation reactions similar to what is needed for the decontamination of PCBs and other hazardous halogenated compounds. Due to safety reasons and international regulations about the displacement and handling chemical hazardous substances it was not possible to work with real PCBs contaminated samples. The efficiency of the developed system was demonstrated by using dichlorotoluene as model compound, showcasing the similarity of reactions with PCBs by computer modelling and GC-MS (Gas chromatography – mass spectrometry) analyses.

The potabilization of water is a complex process that requires the combination of various treatments as flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, disinfection, pH adjustment, etc. Tribolysis is suitable just to cover the part related to disinfection since it can inactivate the microorganisms present in the water. While the total water and wastewater treatment market size was over 280 billion of dollars in 2021 , the part related to the disinfection of the water was valued in 27.4 billion of dollars in 2020 .

Furthermore, the developed triboprocessor was tested on the inactivation of harmful microorganisms from potable water, achieving the goal of reaching 3,5 log inactivation efficiency with 170 ml/min flow in the case of vegetative B. subtilis in Ringer 1:40 matrix. This inactivation level is comparable to what obtained with technological solutions currently employed in water treatment plants.
During the project, the hypothesis formulated have been verified through simulations and experiments. In the case of the PCBs, a large variety of simulations were run in order to identify the most important parameters to promote the degradation reactions. Initially, the experiments were realized with the objective to find the most suitable configuration for design of the triboreactor. In addition to the reaction efficiency, also the feasibility of the solution was evaluated. After the construction of the PCBs' module, the experiments were aimed at looking for the best working parameters to obtain the best efficiency, and the analysis of the samples, together with the computational simulation, had the objective to explain the degradation mechanisms taking place.

For the elimination of the pathogens instead, the simulation aimed to find which conditions could maximize effect essential for the inactivation of microorganisms. The preliminary experiments realized showed that the equipment available within the facilities of the partners were not suitable to reach the needed conditions. For this reason, a big effort was dedicated to the design of a module that can be mounted on an available equipment. After the construction of the complete equipment, this module was adapted and optimized to be able to work for a long time showing reproducible results.

Regarding the dissemination activities were mainly targeting the generic audience. The reason, was the need to protect the IPR of the project. The main activities were:
- a press release for online magazines
- publication of the objectives of the project in the FETFX social media
- direct contact with companies in the fields of interest (PCBs decontamination and water depuration).
For the exploitation, the consortium established a collaboration with an Italian company for the PCBs treatments and participated 3 times to the calls for the EIC Transition programme.
At the moment, the IPR owners are in contact with Sea Marconi Technology for the further development of the PCBs remediation technology, focusing on attracting more fundings for the next steps.
Regarding the application of microorganisms inactivation, the focus is on contacts with end users like Consorcio de Aguas Bizkaia for further testing of the developed lab module and inquire the feasibility to collaborate for the scaling up of the system.
triboREMEDY technology can be an alternative to the commonly used remediation technologies.
For the PCBs, the proposed solution has the advantage to be able to treat them even when they are mixed with other elements and contaminants. It could also be possible to optimize the process so as to obtain contemporary treatment of more varieties of waste. Another important characteristic of the method is that the secondary waste stream volumes are considerably reduced in toxicity. It is expected that the reaction products from tribolysis will be mineralized compounds, with no outgassing during the process and costs and risks will be low. Tribolysis could also be combined with other remediation technologies since it does not change the state of the fluid and in this way, it could be possible to increase the efficiency of the complete process.
For water treatment, the device designed is based on theories completely different from the other technologies used for water treatment.
The characteristics of the processor make the system suitable to work also in remote areas, where it is impossible to have supply from the aqueduct or in situations of special emergencies as for example in flood affected poor regions, where it is particularly difficult to guarantee the disinfection of the water with other means.