Controlling Saturation to Improve Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substance (PFAS) Removal in Biochar-Amended Stormwater Bioretention Systems

Kathleen Hawkins, James Pritchard, Scott Struck, Yeo-Myoung Cho, Richard Luthy, Christopher Higgins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Black carbon-amended bioretention systems are an increasingly popular strategy for the removal of organic contaminants, including poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) and other trace organic contaminants (TOrCs), from urban stormwater. Many PFASs preferentially accumulate at the air-water interface, but detention time requirements for stormwater bioretention systems typically result in full saturation of the bioretention systems, effectively removing their air-water interfaces. This study assessed the effect of bioretention system saturation on removal of PFASs, metals, and hydrophilic TOrCs. A field-aged mixture of 40% v/v sand, 30% v/v zeolite, and 30% v/v biochar was packed into columns which were operated with hydraulic controls to remain unsaturated or fully saturated throughout the duration of the experiment. Twenty-four storm events sized to a 95th percentile storm at a California, United States military site were simulated using synthetic stormwater fortified with aqueous film forming foam-derived PFASs, TOrCs, and metals to mimic real-world conditions. Unsaturated conditions outperformed saturated conditions for removal of all PFASs analyzed. A simulated inadvertent system perturbation (i.e. flooding event) in the unsaturated columns did not result in significantly greater mobilization of PFAS mass, suggesting that more sorption to the biochar occurred as a result of the transient retention of PFASs at the air-water interface reducing kinetic sorption limitations. Overall, maintaining unsaturated conditions in a biofilter may extend the sorptive filter lifetime for PFASs by up to 83%. The results have implications for bioretention system application and design for PFAS removal in contaminated catchment areas.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1233-1244
Number of pages12
JournalEnvironmental Science: Water Research and Technology
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2024

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-5700-89754


  • bioretention systems
  • PFAS removal
  • poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances


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