A Protein That Can Detect Terbium

6. September 2021 | Technologies

Terbium deposits can only be found with great effort. A modified protein could change that.

The rare earth metal terbium is used in numerous technologies. It is used to manufacture semiconductors, but also serves as an activator for fluorescent phosphors. Neodymium-iron-boron magnets become even more powerful with the addition of terbium. However, the detection of terbium deposits is very complex. In the laboratory, mass spectrometric analysis methods are used for this purpose. These are much more accurate than mobile test methods, but correspondingly more expensive, writes Science Daily. A new method has now been developed at Pennsylvania State University that detects traces of the metal even in acidic environments. This is where conventional mobile detection methods fail. The method is based on the property of the protein lanmodulin to bind lanthanides such as terbium. To specifically optimize the protein for detecting terbium, the amino acid tryptophan was added. As soon as terbium is bound, the metal glows green. The intensity of this luminescence allows conclusions to be drawn about the concentration in the sample. The sensor can now be used to detect terbium in mine wastewater, among other things. These could thus become a completely new source for the extraction of the strategic raw material.
The sensor is also to be optimized for other rare earths.

Photo: iStock/panophotograph

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