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Rare Earth Elements: Discovery and Early History

Dom Einhorn
 


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Rare earth elements are seventeen in number according to the periodic table. However, the word “rare” is not to be taken in a literal sense as most of these elements are readily available in the earth’s crust, and they are present in significant quantity. However, the reason the term rare is used is because the areas in which these elements are present can’t be easily extracted due to the unfavorable economic conditions of these areas. In this article, we will be looking at the discovery and the early history of these elements through the following 7 points.

1. The periodic table was not always in the position in which we see it today, as more elements were discovered they were added accordingly. The first time scientists came across the idea of rare elements was after the discovery of ytterbite, which was later renamed as gadolinite.

2. Ytterbite was then sent off to the University of Turku for an in depth examination. There, the professor after processing the element through different procedures was able to extract an oxide but was not able to place a specific identity to it. Also, no other elements were separated that are used to form the rare element in combination.

3. Later in 1803, a couple of scientists in an independent study discovered a white oxide, which they named as ceria. At the same time, another scientist named Martin Klaproth discovered the same element and gave it a different name, ochroia.

4. By this time, people were familiarized with the idea of rare elements. However, for nearly thirty years no other rare elements were discovered by scientists.

5. Later, more rare elements were found, from the same layers of the crust from which the first two rare elements had been discovered.

6. In the same period of scientific history, the famous Lanthana surfaced. This discovery was credited to Carl Mosander who separated ceria through heating the nitrate and then dissolving the resulting product in nitric acid. This process produced a raw form of Lanthana. It wasn’t for another three years after that time until pure Lanthana and didymia, both versions of the rare earth element, were discovered.

7. From here on forward, the discovery of rare elements picked up speed. A number of rare earth elements were discovered. It was by 1842 that the majority of the minerals were known to the people working in the field. At first this element was used for pure scientific reasons only, mostly for research in universities. However, with time, scientists discovered a number of other beneficial uses for these elements. They covered a huge base, from being used in making different parts in the aviation machinery industry to being used in a number of medical treatments that benefit humans. One example is the use of Lanthana in medicine for the renal failure.

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