The rare earth metals or elements are shown in a special segment of the periodic table labeled as lanthanoids or lanthanides. They include Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Promethium, Samarium,Europium, Gadolinium,Terbium, Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium, Thulium, Ytterbium, and Lutetium.
From camera lenses to hybric car batteries; from laser lenses to catalysts, rare earth metals have been incorporated into many, if not most of the high tech devices that we rely upon today. They are used to augment phosphors that work in cathode ray televisions. They replaced thorium which was hazardous when mixed with tungstein to create better high temperature properties for welding.
Lanthanum, europeum, erbium and neodymium are billed as four rare earth elements that are becoming even more important to technology and technological production.
Lanthanum, like many of the rare earth elements, is actually one of the most common elements in the earth’s crust. The rarity comes from the difficulty in extracting it or even buying it since every country is trying to corner the lanthanum markets. Why? Because each Toyota Prius uses about 10 pounds of it in its nickel-lanthanum hydride batteries!
Europium is a phosphor enhancer that helped with the sparky colors in cathode ray tubes. Since cathode ray televisions are out of the picture, europium is still going to be useful in led light technology that is growing by leaps and bounds.
Erbium helps to amplify the pulse of data in optical data fibers. It is essential for making pink glass…pink! It amplifies laser light without amplifying heat in human skin, making laser treatments more tolerable.
Neodymium is another rare earth element that is essential for magnets, but in this case, for smaller and smaller magnets that allow us to have smaller and smaller portable music players, such as the MP3’s that fit on a key chain! This substance also helps to turn the wind turbines that will help to reduce dependency on fossil fuels. But ironically, it is also useful in oil drilling technology.
Add in disk drives, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converters, plasma televisions, Droids and I-Phones, ceramics, lasers and nuclear applications, and the uses for rare earth elements are just beginning to be known.
While rare earths are not so rare in many cases, the main source of them is in China, where an estimated 93-95% of the rare earth mines are located. This has created a volatile and risky situation for investors as well as manufacturers that benefits China but that creates problems for investors. Also, the mining process so far is by the absolutely horrible strip mining method, which creates large areas that will need to be restored.
Maggie Koerth-Baker, “4 Rare Earth Elements That Will Only Get More Important”, Popular Mechanics, 21 May 2010
Wang Quian, “Govt cracks whip on rare earth mining”, China Daily, 21 May 2010