By Catherine Clabby
When scientist-entrepreneur Joseph DeSimone reads news about plastics-related industrial pollution from DuPont-built chemical plants in the Cape Fear River, or anywhere, he can’t help but envision what might have been.
Nearly 20 years ago, DuPont obtained an exclusive license for a DeSimone invention that used a greener process to produce the high-performance plastic Teflon®. Created at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the recipe did not create wastewater tainted with any of the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) now detected in the Cape Fear River.
In 1999, state legislators approved a customized tax credit for DuPont aimed at cutting some of the costs for an expected $254 million plant at DuPont’s Fayetteville Works site in Bladen County. But, in the end, only a $40 million pilot manufacturing site was built there.
DuPont did, however, start a new manufacturing unit on the site. It began making at least one PFAS chemical, called C8, at the Bladen County complex. C8 became a massive environmental liability for DuPont after it was released from its other manufacturing sites outside North Carolina.
The disclosure that C8’s replacement, GenX, leaked into the Cape Fear’s downstream drinking supplies set off health concerns and political fireworks this year.
“It’s really sad, one of the slowest trainwrecks we could have seen,” is DeSimone’s assessment.
Very good chemistry
Joe DeSimone is an internationally known and many-times honored inventor and entrepreneur. His latest company, Carbon, has attracted tens of millions in investment to develop and market a photochemical process that harnesses light and oxygen to speed up 3-D printing, an expanding manufacturing frontier.
DeSimone, who now lives in California, retains chaired professorships at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University. But in the early 1990s, the chemist was a young polymer researcher with a knack for executing good ideas. In part with DuPont funding, materials and collaborators, DeSimone built on graduate projects at Virginia Tech to use supercritical carbon dioxide rather than water requiring PFAS to produce Teflon, a fluoropolymer plastic.
Those plastics are useful in a vast number of products that need to repel water, grease, and dirt and be temperature resistant. Some can form foams, for example, to smother fires.
The PFAS solvents used to make the plastics have hyper-stable molecular structures, which is useful in manufacturing. On the other hand, those structures don’t break easily when released into the environment along with wastewater.
Scientists are not yet certain about health effects from exposure to unregulated PFAS at levels typically found in water and food, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. But some, not all, studies, have shown some PFAS may affect developing fetuses and children by affecting growth, learning, and behavior; decrease fertility and interfere with hormones; increase cholesterol; affect immune responses; and increase cancer risk.
DuPont was bolstered in its stated plans to use DeSimone’s greener methods. The state promised the company tax credits estimated at an average of $2.75 million annually over 20 years if the money paid for equipment or material related to production based on technology developed by a research university. By 2002, Dupont had announced it was using DeSimone’s “Process G” to make Teflon usable in wire and cable insulation, flexible tubing and industrial film in a $40 million factory started up in Bladen County in 2000.
The facility could make other fluoropolymers, “such as Teflon® PFA, which is used in high-purity fluid handling components in the semiconductor and pharmaceuticals industries,” a European chemical trade publication reported, quoting DuPont.
Also in 2002, to the dismay of environmental groups in North Carolina, DuPont began producing C8 at Fayetteville Works, according to an SEC filing. That made DuPont the only known manufacturer in the U.S. since the former supplier, 3M, had phased out production of C8.
By 2006, UNC-Chapel Hill’s technology transfer program was sending written complaints to DuPont saying the company did not appear to be adequately pursuing development of DeSimone’s technology, even after UNC agreed to lower its licensing fees. At that time, the university encouraged the huge chemical corporation to allow other companies to try to implement the new technology, which DuPont, at least initially, had exclusive control over until 2015.
A Chemours spokesman reached by phone Friday did not respond to email messages Friday or Monday about how the company, a DuPont spinoff that now operates Fayetteville Works, uses the pilot facility. But in interviews with The Raleigh News & Observer DuPont officials in 2006 said unexpected market trends stalled DuPont’s development of Process G, which the chemical company had hoped particularly to use to insulate wires, just as wireless electronic technology was rising.
Hal Snyder, then the global technology director for DuPont Fluoroproducts, also said then that his division was devoting much of its research attention to preventing C8 from getting released into the environment.
C8 pollution by then had bloomed into a huge liability for DuPont.
In 2005, DuPont settled allegations by the EPA that the company failed multiple times starting in 1981 to report evidence of human health risks from PFOAs in Ohio and West Virginia. DuPont agreed to pay $10.25 million, EPA’s largest civil administrative penalty at that time, and another $6.25 million, partly for projects to investigate the potential of nine of DuPont’s fluorotelomer-based products to breakdown to form PFOAs.
Just this year DuPont settled a class-action lawsuit involving PFOA water contamination in the mid-Ohio Valley for $670.7 million.
In 2009, Dupont signed a consent order with EPA saying it had replaced C8 production with related compounds that appeared to pose less pollution hazard, specifically GenX. The company vowed to use strict environmental controls to prevent its release. That did not calm the worries of environmentalists in North Carolina concerned about production of PFAS so close to the Cape Fear River, said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina.
“It would allow DuPont to come up with another product about which we knew even less than we did about C8,” said Taylor, who was active in an organization called the NC C8 Working Group.
When DeSimone reflects on what might have been if Process G was put to work, the researcher/businessman understands that it would not have been viable for DuPont to quickly switch all production streams to a new approach. And he is convinced that economic forces hindered its adoption, particularly the big recession that hit a decade ago.
But from what he’s seen and been told, he said, more was in play.
“There was a community within DuPont that was very passionate about being more environmentally friendly,” DeSimone said. “There was another community that was mostly driven by business operations. They had had plants paid for, running and making money.”
The experience with DuPont convinced DeSimone that next time he had the chance to move an invention from the laboratory to the wider world, he would do it himself.
“Within a company there are entrenched interests that can win the day and not for the right reasons,” he said. “That’s what I think happened here.”