Skip to content

McKenzie Burns

University of Wisconsin Madison, PhD
EREF Scholar 2021

PFAS Removal from Landfill Leachate via ElectrosorptionProject Description:

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a relatively new class of chemical found in many consumer products. Once discarded, such products often end up in a landfill, where they can leech PFAS chemicals into the environment during degradation. PFAS concentrate within the landfill leachate is treated and disposed of separately; however, PFAS are extremely persistent chemicals and can resist most conventional treatment techniques. As such, a targeted remediation technique is required for PFAS-containing landfill leachate.

Electrosorption technologies use charged metal plates to attract and retain ions of the opposite charge in a solution. For example, electrosorption is the main technique used in water desalination, where negatively-charged electrode plates attract and “hold onto” the positive sodium ions in salt water, producing salt-free water. This technology has potential in treating PFAS-containing leachates; although PFAS are uncharged molecules, they have long, negatively-charged ‘tails’ that could theoretically be captured and retained by strongly positive electrode plates. This research aims to investigate the practical application of such electrosorption techniques for PFAS removal from landfill leachate.

This research aims to encourage the waste industry to investigate the potentials of modular treatment technologies for landfill leachate, so that specific, individual and highly toxic contaminants (like PFAS) can be efficiently and effectively removed. Additionally, this work aims to increase public literacy in the intricacies of solid waste management, as it is important to encourage the average consumer to think beyond “garbage day” about how their personal waste contributions represent a threat to the environment. Finally, this research could encourage environmentally-focused design within the solid waste management industry and beyond.


Burns attended Bucknell University between 2016 and 2020, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in environmental engineering. Her undergraduate research and thesis focused on thermochemical conversion of waste biomass, with emphasis on resource recovery and reuse. She is currently pursuing her PhD in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin Madison (expected 2020-2025), where she researches electro- and bioelectrochemical waste treatment technologies, also with emphasis on resource recovery when applicable. Outside of her academic career, Burns volunteers as an environmental educator with the Midwest chapter of She Jumps, a non-profit which focuses on empowering women and girls in the outdoors.