Today, it is largely artificially created, and used in watches, pacemakers, and in scientific research. This silvery metal can be used in several vital ways. First, it is part of very powerful magnets used in many transportation, defense, and commercial technologies. Second, in conjunction with other compounds for intravenous radiation treatment it can kill cancer cells and is used to treat lung, prostate, breast and some forms of bone cancer. Because it is a stable neutron absorber, samarium is used to control rods of nuclear reactors, contributing to their safe use.
Named for the continent of Europe, europium is a hard metal used to create visible light in compact fluorescent bulbs and in color displays. Europium phosphors help bring bright red to color displays and helped to drive the popularity of early generations of color television sets. Fittingly, it is used to make the special phosphors marks on Euro notes that prevent counterfeiting.
Gadolinium has particular properties that make it especially suited for important functions, such as shielding in nuclear reactors and neutron radiography. It can target tumors in neuron therapy and can enhance magnetic resonance imaging MRI , assisting in both the treatment and diagnosis of cancer. X-rays and bone density tests can also use gadolinium, making this rare earth element a major contributor to modern health care solutions. This silvery rare earth metal is so soft it can be cut with a knife. Terbium is often used in compact fluorescent lighting, color displays, and as an additive to permanent rare earth magnets to allow them to function better under higher temperatures.
It can be found in fuel cells designed to operate at elevated temperatures, in some electronic devices and in naval sonar systems.
Apple will use recycled rare earth metals in the iPhone's Taptic Engine
Discovered in , terbium in its alloy form has the highest magnetostriction of any such substance, meaning it changes its shape due to magnetization more than any other alloy. This property makes terbium a vital component of Terfenol-D, which has many important uses in defense and commercial technologies. Another soft, silver metal, dysprosium has one of the highest magnetic strengths of the elements, matched only by holmium. Dysprosium is often added to permanent rare earth magnets to help them operate more efficiently at higher temperatures.
Lasers and commercial lighting can use dysprosium, which may also be used to create hard computer disks and other electronics that require certain magnetic properties. Dysprosium may also be used in nuclear reactors and modern, energy-efficient vehicles. Holmium was discovered in and named for the city of Stockholm.
Apple will use recycled rare earth metals in the iPhone's Taptic Engine
Along with dysprosium, holmium has incredible magnetic properties. In fact, some of the strongest artificially created magnetic fields are the result of magnetic flux concentrators made with holmium alloys. In addition to providing coloring to cubic zirconia and glass, holmium can be used in nuclear control rods and microwave equipment. Another rare earth with nuclear applications, erbium can be found in neutron-absorbing control rods. It is a key component of high-performance fiber optic communications systems, and can also be used to give glass and other materials a pink color, which has both aesthetic and industrial purposes.
Erbium can also help create lasers, including some used for medical purposes. A silvery-gray metal, thulium is one of the least abundant rare earths. Its isotopes are widely used as the radiation device in portable X-rays, making thulium a highly useful material. Thulium is also a component of highly efficient lasers with various uses in defense, medicine and meteorology. This element, named for a village in Sweden associated with its discovery, has several important uses in health care, including in certain cancer treatments.
Ytterbium can also enhance stainless steel and be used to monitor the effects of earthquakes and explosions on the ground.
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Furthermore, a close examination of these elements reveals vast differences in their behaviours and properties; e. This difference is much larger than that found in many groups of the periodic table; e. The name rare earths itself is a misnomer. The 16 naturally occurring rare earths fall into the 50th percentile of elemental abundances. Many people do not realize the enormous impact the rare-earth elements have on their daily lives, but it is almost impossible to avoid a piece of modern technology that does not contain any.
Even a product as simple as a lighter flint contains rare-earth elements.
Rare earth elements facts
Their pervasiveness is exemplified by the modern automobile , one of the biggest consumers of rare-earth products. Dozens of electric motors in a typical automobile, as well as the speakers of its sound system, use neodymium - iron - boron permanent magnets. Electrical sensors employ yttria-stabilized zirconia to measure and control the oxygen content of the fuel. The three-way catalytic converter relies on cerium oxides to reduce nitrogen oxides to nitrogen gas and oxidize carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide and unburned hydrocarbons to carbon dioxide and water in the exhaust products.
Phosphors in optical displays contain yttrium, europium, and terbium oxides. The windshield, mirrors, and lenses are polished using cerium oxides.
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Even the gasoline or diesel fuel that propels the vehicle was refined using rare-earth cracking catalysts containing lanthanum, cerium, or mixed-rare-earth oxides. Hybrid automobiles are powered by a nickel —lanthanum metal hydride rechargeable battery and an electrical traction motor, with permanent magnets containing rare-earth elements. In addition, modern media and communication devices— cell phones , televisions , and computers —all employ rare earths as magnets for speakers and hard drives and phosphors for optical displays.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
The amounts of rare earths used are quite small 0. Although the rare earths have been around since the formation of Earth , their existence did not come to light until the late 18th century. In the Swedish army lieutenant Carl Axel Arrhenius discovered a unique black mineral in a small quarry in Ytterby a small town near Stockholm. That mineral was a mixture of rare earths, and the first individual element to be isolated was cerium in The history of the individual rare-earth elements is both complex and confused, mainly because of their chemical similarity.
The last naturally occurring rare-earth element lutetium was discovered in , but research into the chemistry of these elements was difficult because no one knew how many true rare-earth elements existed. In the s the search for element 61 was intense. In groups of scientists at the University of Florence , Italy, and at the University of Illinois claimed to have discovered element 61 and named the element florentium and illinium, respectively, but their claims could not be independently verified.
The furor of these claims and counterclaims eventually died down by It was not until , after the fission of uranium , that element 61 definitely was isolated and named promethium by scientists at the U.
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More details about the discovery of the individual elements are found in the articles about those elements.