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Hip to Be Rare

Hip to Be Rare

Credit: Images of Elements
Source: http://images-of-elements.com/yttrium.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Yttrium, scandium, and the 15 lanthanides are sometimes referred to collectively as rare earth elements. Although they may be mostly ignored by introductory chemistry courses, these elements play crucial roles in a multitude of high-tech devices. The chemical and physical properties possessed by these substances are not easily replicated using more abundant materials. Even though they are not quite as rare as their name implies, their frequent use in modern technology is making it difficult for suppliers to keep up with the constantly growing demand for these elements.

Why It Matters

  • A huge variety of common devices are made possible by one or more rare earth elements, including cell phones, LED lights, and hybrid cars.
  • Credit: Yutaka Tsutano
    Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ivyfield/4802227735/
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    The use of rare elements allow smartphones to be small and portable [Figure2]


  • One of the most important applications of the rare earth elements, particularly neodymium and samarium, is to make smaller, stronger magnets. The magnets required in computers, phones, and other portable technology would be much larger, and therefore much less portable, if more abundant magnetic substances were used instead.
  • Currently, about 95% of the global supply of rare earth elements comes from mines in China. As a result, rare earth elements represent an important political and economic issue.
  • Learn more about the importance and uses of various rare earth elements in the following video: 


Explore More

With the links below, learn more about the uses of rare earth elements. Then answer the following questions.

  1. Hybrid cars require several pounds of rare earth elements for optimal functioning. Where in the car are these elements being used in such large quantities?
  2. What is a common household item that would become much more expensive if there were a sudden shortage of europium? Why?
  3. One big way to reduce the demand for rare earth elements would be to find a way to generate stronger magnets using common metals. One promising lead is a substance called tetrataenite. What elements are used to create this alloy, and where has it been found to occur naturally?
  4. What rare earth element is commonly injected into a patient before taking an MRI, and why?

Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Images of Elements; Source: http://images-of-elements.com/yttrium.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: Yutaka Tsutano; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ivyfield/4802227735/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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