Chemistry professor Joseph Cotruvo receives Early Career Award

Maria Landschoot
June 23, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Joseph Cotruvo Jr., Louis Martarano Career Development Professor of Chemistry, has been named a recipient of a grant from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Early Career Research Program in support of his work on the rare-earth-metal–binding protein lanmodulin and its applications to efficiently separate the technologically critical rare earths from other elements. Cotruvo is one of only 76 scientists across the country to receive this award, which will support his research for five years.

Joseph Cotruvo, Jr.

Joseph Cotruvo Jr.

IMAGE: Provided

The Early Career Research Program, now in its 11th year, is designed to bolster the nation’s scientific workforce by providing support to exceptional researchers during crucial early career years, when many scientists do their most formative work. The DOE award is available to untenured, tenure-track assistant or associate professors at U.S. academic institutions and researchers at DOE national laboratories who received a doctorate within the past 10 years.

lanmodulin structure

A structural model of the compact metal-bound form of the lanmodulin protein, which is 100 million times better at binding to lanthanides — the rare-earth metals used in smartphones and other technologies — than to other metals like calcium.

IMAGE: Penn State

"The Department of Energy is proud to support funding that will sustain America's scientific workforce, and create opportunities for our researchers to remain competitive on the world stage," said Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar. "By bolstering our commitment to the scientific community, we invest in our nation's next generation of innovators."

Cotruvo’s work supported by this award focuses on understanding why the protein lanmodulin, which his group recently discovered and named, is so selective for all 17 of the rare earth metals and how to harness the protein to separate out rare earth metals from other metals and from one another. Separation of rare earth metals in mining and recycling applications is currently a laborious, energy- and resource-intensive process using environmentally harmful chemicals. Increasing efficiency of these separations using a “green” material like lanmodulin has the potential to lower costs, decrease waste, and allow usage of a wider variety of sources of rare earths. Unlike most proteins, lanmodulin is remarkably stable, which enables it to extract rare earth metals from industrially relevant samples even under harsh experimental conditions. The robust performance, stability, affinity, and selectivity of lanmodulin suggest that this protein may represent a new and efficient approach for certain rare earth separations, and possibly separations of other valuable elements.

Cotruvo’s academic achievements have been honored with a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award in 2020, the Charles E. Kaufman Foundation New Investigator Award in 2018, the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2013, and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship in 2008.

Prior to joining the Penn State faculty in 2016, Cotruvo was a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned a doctoral degree in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012 and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Princeton University in 2006.

Last Updated June 23, 2020