PFAS ban could slow down the green transition
A recently proposed EU ban on PFAS, a group of around 12,000 chemicals, could have negative effects on the green transition. Solar panels, wind turbines, Power-to-X, and other green technologies are not just dependent on PFAS—the spread of them requires, all things being equal, a massive increase in their consumption.
This is the conclusion that Ingeniøren arrived at after a review of PFAS consumption in a number of technologies—and according to the EU’s chemicals agency, ECHA, the green transition in the energy sector requires more than a tenfold increase in PFAS consumption by 2050, which is the year many countries aim to become climate neutral.
Xenia Trier, associate professor in environmental analytical chemistry at the University of Copenhagen, is one of the biggest advocates for limiting the use of PFAS in Denmark. She believes that the use of the controversial substances in energy technologies is counterproductive.
“A total PFAS ban could slow down the fight against climate change,” she admits, but adds that energy technologies can be designed without PFAS.
“It does us no good to pollute the environment, drinking water, and food when we can avoid it,” she says.
PFAS are used for many purposes, including in a number of the technologies that are important for the green transition. Ingeniøren has selected a number of examples of green technologies in which PFAS plays an important role and has investigated whether there are alternatives.
Use: The front of solar panels, which consists of glass, can be treated with a PFAS coating, which reduces the reflection of light and increases the yield, as well as reduces friction so that dust and dirt slide off more easily. The back of the solar panels can be coated with PFAS to prevent the penetration of moisture.
Alternative: There are alternatives on the market, which, according to the industry, are not as good at repelling moisture, which can lead to defects or deterioration of the solar cells.
Use: Wind turbine blades can be coated with PFAS, i.a. to protect the wings from, for example, rain.
Alternative: Without PFAS, wind turbine blades lose 2–3 percent of their effectiveness, according to the European Chemicals Agency, ECHA. ECHA does not report on PFAS-free alternatives, but refers to Siemens Gamesa, which states that the company does not coat their wind turbine blades with PFAS.
Use: PFAS are used in, among other things, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries of electric vehicles. A number of the battery parts, such as the electrode, contain PFAS in order to make them more thermally and chemically stable. According to the battery manufacturing industry, PFAS play a crucial role in making sure lithium-ion batteries have a long life.
Alternative: ECHA points to alternatives to the lithium-ion batteries, for example solid-state batteries, in which the electrolyte in the middle—which contains PFAS—is not liquid, but instead solid. However, the technology is not yet commercially available.
Hydrogen and Power-to-X
Use: In PEM (proton-exchange membrane) technology for electrolysis and fuel cells, PFAS is used as an electrolyte to conduct the hydrogen ions. ECHA estimates that the roll-out of electrolysis plants and fuel cells requires an increase in PFAS consumption, as PEM is considered to be one of the main technologies behind future hydrogen production (the basis for Power-to-X) and utilization.
Alternative: According to the hydrogen industry, there are no alternatives to PFAS in PEM technology, and this will also be the case in the near future. The alternatives highlighted by ECHA are also described by stakeholders as having extremely poor mechanical stability and durability.
Hydrogen targets in danger
Already today, the energy sector is responsible for discharging over 50 tonnes of PFAS per year, the ECHA estimates. This is problematic because some PFAS are associated with reduced effectiveness of vaccines, cancer, and a wide range of other diseases.
Nevertheless, the Confederation of Danish Industry (DI) warns that an EU ban risks hitting unnecessarily hard and slowing down the implementation of green technologies that have been in development for years.
“It may well be that some may benefit from a ban over time, but a PFAS ban will also mean that a necessary component will not be possible to produce and will suddenly disappear without an available alternative,” says Helle Westphal, senior advisor for environmental policy and circular economy at DI.
For example, the spread of hydrogen technologies, which are the backbone of Power-to-X, risks stopping if PFAS is banned in the so-called PEM technology, ECHA warns in the documents published in connection with the plan for the EU ban.
“(...) an increase in the use of PFASs to be used in PEM electrolysis technology (...) is foreseen to accomplish the 2030 EU hydrogen Strategy goal of 40 GW electrolysis capacity within the EU,” ECHA writes and estimates that, other things being equal, 500 tonnes of PFAS will be needed to reach the hydrogen target.
Today, solar panels and wind turbines also make use of the practical properties of PFAS to improve lifetime and efficiency. According to ECHA, wind turbines lose up to 2–3 percent of their effectiveness without PFAS on the blades.
The EU proposal for a ban on PFAS is currently in the consultation phase. It is not yet known which PFAS and which applications will be affected by the ban. The European Commission and the EU member states will decide on that later. The ban is expected to apply from 2026/2027 at the earliest.
On 7 February 2023, the EU’s chemicals agency, ECHA, presented a proposal to limit the production and use of around 12,000 chemicals of the PFAS type—the biggest move to ban chemicals in the EU as of yet.
PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are characterised by their strong carbon-fluorine bonds, which make them, among other things, water, grease, and heat repellent, which is desirable in a myriad of products and technologies, including solar panels, wind turbines, and EV batteries.
The carbon-fluorine bonds make PFAS largely indestructible. They therefore accumulate in nature and in humans, where they have a number of negative health effects. This applies, among other things, to reduced effectiveness of vaccines, increased cholesterol levels, and increased risk of several types of cancer as well as a number of other diseases.
While researchers have today uncovered the harmful effects of a number of PFAS such as PFOS and PFOA, which are now illegal, experts have warned for years that other, legal PFAS can be just as dangerous. Therefore, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden have taken the initiative for the proposal to fully ban PFAS.
However, the proposal will contain exceptions if the use is considered irreplaceable or essential for society. However, it has not yet been decided which uses and PFAS this concerns, and therefore a six-month long public consultation process began on 22 March.
Experts from ECHA will then review the submitted responses before the proposal is forwarded to the European Commission and the EU member states must decide on the proposal to ban PFAS. The ban is expected to enter into force in 2026 and 2027 at the earliest.
In the USA, a similar general PFAS ban has been proposed. However, the vast majority of the proposed new laws were voted down in Congress earlier this year, after at least 43 companies or industry associations had spent millions of dollars on lobbying in connection with the bills in the “PFAS Action Act”.