Penn State Develops New Sensor That Can Detect Valuable Rare Earth Element Terbium from Acid Mine Drainage (AMD)

A team of researchers from Penn State University has developed a new luminescent sensor that can detect the Rare Earth Element (REE) terbium from complex environmental samples like AMD. Terbium is one of the rarest earth elements and produces the green color in cell phone displays and is also used in high-efficiency lighting and solid-state devices. The sensor takes advantage of a protein that very specifically binds to rare earth elements and could be harnessed to help develop a domestic supply of these rare metals. Terbium is used in products like smart phones, electric car batteries and energy efficient lighting.

According to Penn State Mirage News,” there is currently no domestic supply chain of rare earth elements like terbium, but they are actually quite abundant in non-traditional sources in the U.S. including coal byproducts, acid mine drainage and electronic waste.” Penn State researchers were able to develop luminescence-based sensor that can be used to detect and even quantify low levels of terbium in complex acidic samples.

According to Penn State researchers, one challenge with extracting rare earth elements is that they have to be removed from the rock. With AMD, REE’s have already been removed naturally. But looking for REE’s is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Currently, the Commonwealth has an existing infrastructure in place to treat AMD and both active and inactive mine drainage to mitigate their environmental impact. The goal is now to identify the sites with the most valuable rare earth elements using sensors and focus extraction efforts to “turn waste streams into revenue streams.”

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