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Uses of Lanthanides in Devices

Uses of Lanthanides in Devices

Lanthanides (elements 57–71) are fairly abundant in the earth’s crust, despite their historic characterization as rare earth elements. Thulium, the rarest naturally occurring lanthanoid, is more common in the earth’s crust than silver (4.5 \(×\) 10−5% versus 0.79 \(×\) 10−5% by mass). There are 17 rare earth elements, consisting of the 15 lanthanoids plus scandium and yttrium.

They are called rare because they were once difficult to extract economically, so it was rare to have a pure sample; due to similar chemical properties, it is difficult to separate any one lanthanide from the others. However, newer separation methods, such as ion exchange resins similar to those found in home water softeners, make the separation of these elements easier and more economical. Most ores that contain these elements have low concentrations of all the rare earth elements mixed together.

The commercial applications of lanthanides are growing rapidly. For example, europium is important in flat screen displays found in computer monitors, cell phones, and televisions. Neodymium is useful in laptop hard drives and in the processes that convert crude oil into gasoline (see the figure below). Holmium is found in dental and medical equipment. In addition, many alternative energy technologies rely heavily on lanthanoids. Neodymium and dysprosium are key components of hybrid vehicle engines and the magnets used in wind turbines.

This figure contains two images. Figure a shows a background with approximately half of the background to the upper right covered by a dark blue quarter circle. The remainder of the background is red. On top of this surface are 15 vertical columns of light blue dots, which are evenly spaced with gaps between them approximately equal to the width of the columns. In figure b, a computer hard drive is shown. It consists of a thin black plastic rectangular frame on which a thin disk with a metallic appearance is placed. A curved grey shape lies outside of this disk in the rectangular frame and is circled in red. This curved shape has a thin, pointed extension that reaches to the surface of the metallic disk.

(a) Europium is used in display screens for televisions, computer monitors, and cell phones. (b) Neodymium magnets are commonly found in computer hard drives. (credit b: modification of work by “KUERT Datenrettung”/Flickr)

As the demand for lanthanide materials has increased faster than supply, prices have also increased. In 2008, dysprosium cost $110/kg; by 2014, the price had increased to $470/kg. Increasing the supply of lanthanoid elements is one of the most significant challenges facing the industries that rely on the optical and magnetic properties of these materials.

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