New Sensing Mechanisms for Rare Earth Detection in Coal and Coal Byproducts

Technology Partner: Idaho National LaboratoryAward Number: FWP-INL-B000-17-015
Project Duration: 8/31/2017 – 9/30/2020Total Project Value: $1,000,000

Key Technology Area: Enabling Technologies
Project Partners: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Rutgers–The State University of New Jersey; and

University of California, Davis

The objective of Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in this project is to evaluate novel complexation chemistries for the development of innovative sensing technologies for rare earth elements (REEs). Complexation of lanthanides by peptides, coupled with the unique spectroscopic properties of lanthanides, is the underpinning for luminescent applications of lanthanide binding tags (LBTs), originally invented as biochemical tools for the study of proteins. A peptide sequence specifically designed to bind lanthanides includes amino acids which have chromophore side- chains (tyrosine or tryptophan), and upon lanthanide binding the complex exhibits unique luminescence properties, enabling detection and visualization. In coal and coal by-products, although specific lanthanide enrichments may vary by provenance, generally the whole lanthanide series is present. A positive signal generated upon exposure of a sample to the specialized

REE ligand would imply that the sample is enriched with REE and is worthy of further examination. Specifically, INL will evaluate whether the chemistry of LBTs or other novel chromophore ligands can serve as the foundation for tools enabling rapid screening of REE-containing materials in the field. This work is at the discovery scale, but if successful, it could lead to the development of field-deployable sensors or field test kits for detection of REE in coal or coal by-products. Such sensors could be useful for myriad purposes beyond REE detection in coal, such as monitoring of REE content in process streams, detection of upsets during industrial processing, and rapid testing and validation of new extraction or separations techniques. In addition, the modeling and laboratory studies of the REE-ligand associations will contribute to fundamental understanding of the complexation behavior of lanthanides.


Luminescence is enhanced when a lanthanide binds to a ligand that has an attached antenna chromophore.

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