Rare Earth Elements

Rare Earth Elements

As defined by IUPAC, rare earth elements or rare earth metals are a set of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the fifteen lanthanoids plus scandium and yttrium. Scandium and yttrium are considered rare earth elements since they tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanoids and exhibit similar chemical properties.

Periodic Table of Elements
Periodic Table of Elements

Despite their name, rare earth elements (with the exception of the radioactive promethium) are relatively plentiful in the Earth's crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million (similar to copper). However, because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms known as rare earth minerals. It was the very scarcity of these minerals (previously called "earths") that led to the term "rare earth". The first such mineral discovered was gadolinite, a compound of cerium, yttrium, iron, silicon and other elements. This mineral was extracted from a mine in the village of Ytterby in Sweden; many of the rare earth elements bear names derived from this location.

Niobium (atomic number: 41) is a shiny, white, soft, and ductile metal, and takes on a bluish tinge when exposed to air at room temperatures for a long time. The metal starts to oxidize in air at high temperatures, and when handled hot must be done so under a protective atmosphere so as to minimize oxide production.

Lanthanum (atomic number: 57) is silvery white, malleable, ductile, and soft enough to be cut with a knife. It is one of the most reactive of the rare-earth metals. It oxidises rapidly when exposed to air. Cold water attacks lanthanum slowly, and hot water attacks it much more rapidly. The metal reacts directly with elemental carbon, nitrogen, boron, selenium, silicon, phosphorus, sulphur, and with halogens. It is a component of, misch metal (used for making lighter flints).

Cerium (atomic number: 58) is an iron-grey lustrous metal. It is malleable, and oxidises very readily at room temperature, especially in moist air. Except for europium, cerium is the most reactive of the rare-earth metals. It slowly decomposes in cold water, and rapidly in hot water. Alkali solutions and dilute and concentrated acids attack the metal rapidly. The pure metal may ignite when scratched with a knife. It is the most abundant of the rare earth metals and is found in minerals including allanite, monazite, cerite, and bastnaesite.

Praseodymium (atomic number: 59) is soft, silvery, malleable, and ductile. It was prepared in relatively pure form in 1931. It is somewhat more resistant to corrosion in air than europium, lanthanum, cerium, or neodymium, but it does develop a green oxide coating that "spalls" away when exposed to air. The metal should be stored under an inert atmosphere or under mineral oil or petroleum. The rare-earth oxides, including Pr2O3, are among the most refractory substances known. It is a component of misch metal, used for lighter flints, and of the glass in welders' goggles.

Neodymium (atomic number: 60) is present in misch metal to the extent of about 18%. The metal has a bright silvery metallic lustre. Neodymium is one of the more reactive rare-earth metals and quickly tarnishes in air, forming an oxide that spalls off and exposes the metal to further oxidation.

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