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UND’s Frank Xiao earns prestigious $500,000 NSF award for quest to mitigate effects of harmful manmade chemicals

Frank Xiao (center) poses for a photo in front of a poster detailing his latest research with two of his PhD students, Pavan Challa Sasi (right) and Ali Alinezhad. Photo courtesy of Frank Xiao.

One of UND’s most celebrated young researchers just received another honor.

Frank Xiao, assistant professor of civil engineering, received a CAREER award/grant from the National Science Foundation for his anti-pollution work. Xiao studies the use of heat to treat PFAS-contaminated soils, PFAS being an acronym for a group of widely used yet potentially harmful manmade chemicals.

NSF CAREER awards are the Foundation’s most prestigious grants that support early-career, not-yet-tenured faculty whose current research and educational endeavors point to future leadership in their respective fields.

Xiao is only the College of Engineering & Mines’ second faculty member in more than two decades to have earned an NSF CAREER award. He is among only 15 UND faculty members to have earned the award in the history of the University.

Moreover, Xiao’s NSF CAREER grant is his second early-career award from a federal agency, a feat only few academics in the United States have ever accomplished. His first Early-Career grant came from the Environmental Protection Agency.

As part of the award, the NSF has committed $500,000 to Xiao’s PFAS research at UND, which he will carry out over the next five years and employ more than a dozen of students in doing so.

The NSF award will allow Xiao to take on a new direction in his years-long research of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

“I have been studying these chemicals since my Ph.D. actually, since 2010,” said Xiao. “I’ve worked on different aspects such as environmental transport and water treatment, but not on the soil remediation aspect.”

In this 2017 photo, Frank Xiao (right) is shown with students in his Civil Engineering Lab, part of the UND College of Engineering & Mines.  UND archive photo.

A family of nearly 3,000 synthetic chemicals, PFAS have been manufactured in the U.S. since the 1940s. The chemicals once were found in a slate of commercial and consumer products, from nonstick cookware to fast-food wraps to water-resistant clothing. While discontinued in the United States, PFAS are still used in the manufacturing processes of other countries. As a result, products containing PFAS are frequently imported into the U.S.

PFAS accumulate in soil and water as well as the human body. A report by the Centers for Disease Control found that 97 percent of Americans have PFAS chemicals in their blood. Studies show that PFAS can result in increased cholesterol levels, increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer as well as a higher risk of pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, among other harmful health effects. They are called “forever chemicals” because their chemistry prevents them from breaking down in the natural environment.

“It’s very, very alarming,” Xiao said, adding that there are more than 400 suspected or confirmed PFAS contamination sites in the country.

Thermal soil treatment  

Although PFAS have existed for decades, there aren’t any viable methods to remedy their presence in nature. Current abatement approaches are costly and not sustainable outside of a research lab, Xiao said. He wants to change that by researching the susceptibility of PFAS substances to thermal degradation in soils.

Because they are used in products that can withstand relatively high temperatures (such as cookware and firefighting foams), PFAS are commonly perceived to be resistant to fire. But this is a misconception, Xiao said.

Some PFAS chemicals degrade at temperatures as low as 150 °C, while others break down at 450 °C, Xiao found.

“Knowing that, I am thinking, ‘Since PFAS can be degraded at low to moderate temperatures, then what happens to them in the natural environment when there’s a wildfire, for example?’” Xiao said.

Xiao will seek this answer. His research is two-pronged: how PFAS behave during thermal treatment (e.g., cooking, baking, wildfires) and, subsequently, what remediation practices could be created and effectively applied outside a lab, in the real world.

During the five-year research project, Xiao will employ both undergraduate as well as graduate students, a commitment in line with UND’s continued focus to provide experiential and hands-on learning opportunities.

“I enjoying working with students,” Xiao said. “Research is also a good benefit for undergraduate students. Even if they don’t pursue master’s degrees, the experience is still relevant for their professional careers, and it’s something they can showcase on their resumes.”