Among the so-called rare earths is the element terbium, used in various chemical applications, including x-ray inputs, energy-saving fluorescent lamps, car batteries and other electronic devices.
A team of researchers developed a sensor that makes it possible to detect the presence of this element in difficult-to-explore areas, such as waste treatment in mining.
Rescuing the terbium that was previously wasted
Rare earths are highly valued. Its rarity does not lie precisely in its scarcity, since, at least in the case of some elements, it is possible to find specimens of these in deposits throughout the world. Rather, what is exotic about these elements is how difficult it is to find them in their pure state.
Along with scandium, yttrium and the remaining 14 elements of the group of lanthanides, terbium is one more representative within the category of rare earths. In particular, this element is scarce, since it is only possible to find it contained in proportions that do not exceed 1% within other elements and never in a free state.
Sponsored by the US National Science Foundation, a research team developed a luminescent sensor that can detect and measure the presence of this element in elusive analytical environments. This device was used to analyze samples from an acid mine waste treatment facility, which had low levels of terbium and contained traces of other metals. According to the report from this research, the sensor worked “As well as ICP-MS mass spectrometry, which has long been considered the industry standard”.
The application of a sensor in the search for this mineral may imply the reduction and even – if viewed with optimism – the future eradication of the collection practices of these precious materials, which today generate an environmental impact of considerations.
With this technological development, the creation of a rare earth supply chain that does not interfere with other industrial processes is encouraged, supporting the identification and quantification of these valuable materials in abundant sources. As stated by the study scientists, the exploration possibilities extend to industrial waste deposits and manufacturing by-products such as acid mining sewage and coal waste.
The sensor presented was defined as a portable, affordable device capable of working in sub-optimal environmental conditions. The researchers claim that with this proposal “They will transform the way rare earth metals are identified, sourced and managed sustainably”.
Header photo: Images of Elements.