ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology

Biosensor for rare earth elements

26, Mar 2024

Biosensor for rare earth elements

A biosensor that can detect rare earth elements used in electronics, medicine, energy storage and clean energy generation is being developed by a team within the Centre’s two Queensland nodes.

And it’s hoped the biosensor will form the basis of new, sustainable rare earth element (REE) extraction and recycling technologies.

REE, as the name suggests, have low natural abundance. There is an urgent need to identify secondary sources for these elements and find less costly and environmentally harmful extraction methods.

Professor Kirill Alexandrov, from the University of Technology Queensland, and biomining expert, Dr Denys Villa-Gomez from the University of Queensland, with support from Dr Colin Scott from CSIRO, are collaborating on a project based on the powers of a bacterial protein called lanmodulin.

The team is working to convert lanmodulin into a molecular switch activated by REE. This switch can be then use as a starting point for creating a family of biosensors specific for different metals. These will result in variants of lanmodulin with different specificities that can be used for biological metal extraction. In particular the team would like to engineer Lanmodulin to selectively bind to specific minerals such as Neodymium and Europium which are in high demand.

‘The demand for rare earth elements, including lanthanides, currently exceeds our ability to supply them,’ says Professor Alexandrov.

Current extraction and separation methods, he says, are costly, laborious and often produce contaminated waste.

Dr Villa-Gomez says her team at UQ will validate the biosensor’s sensitivity, accuracy and its overall applicability in mine waste and impacted waters.

‘We’ll identify the critical factors affecting the biosensor’s practical use which include pH range, concentration range and selectivity. My team will also determine the optimal biosensor set up conditions at which industry transfer is facilitated,’ she says.