They are already in many of the technologies you use on a daily basis. And, they are likely to be even more ubiquitous and omnipotent in the decades to come, notably fostering the development of green power. Strangely enough, the odds are that you have never or seldom heard about them. They are called rare earths.
What Are Rare Earths?
If you remember your chemistry courses, you must have vague memories of the periodic table. If you do, you may recall that some of the featuring elements were shunted off the table and simply put under it. Well, many of these orphans – atomic numbers 57 to 71 – actually are rare earths. Scandium (atomic number 21) and Yttrium (atomic number 39), however, are in the table even if they are also considered rare earths.
These 17 rare earth metals, in a nutshell, are chemical elements whose appellation is misleading. In fact, rare earths are not “rare” per se; they simply are dispersed and often not concentrated enough to be economically exploitable, but they can be found all over the world.
Most of the output has historically come from China, but a bunch of countries now hope to exploit deposits of minerals containing these elements. Rare earths have unique properties, are used in many of today’s most common applications and will play a huge role in tomorrow’s exciting technological applications.
Where Are They So Useful?
Rare earths already are essential to the following technologies: cars and hybrid vehicles, wind power, LCD and PCP screens, optics, cordless power tools, iPods, cell phones, CDs and DVDs. For instance, it is estimated that each Toyota Prius you see on the roads contains about 10 pounds of that rare earth metal called lanthanum.
Other examples include quality colour TV (europium has considerably improved the way in which the red colour pops on the screen), white LED-based lights (europium), light pulses carrying data (erbium), dental and skin laser treatments (erbium), magnets that allow you to carry your music with you (neodymium), etc.
Rare earth metals also are already very useful in wind turbines that produce electricity and in the drills that search for petroleum under the surface of our Earth. It thus appears that many of the most advanced technologies used in today’s world contain rare earth metals and that tomorrow’s innovations will be highly affected by them.
By contributing to the development of green energy such as wind power and electric cars in order to reduce our dependence to fossil fuels and help fight global warming, rare earth metals are likely to play a key role in the sustainability of our civilization. We may therefore be quite lucky that they are not as “rare” as their name suggests!
Rare Earth Oxides – Wikimedia Public Domain
Guest Author Bio
Alexandre Duval is a blogger writing about Technological topics & more. He is also currently completing his master’s degree in political science at the University of Quebec in Montreal.
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