Printer Friendly

Swedish names signify elements of rare value.

Of all the elements in the periodic table, the rare earths have the oddest names.

Of course, you won't find some of those names so odd if you're from Sweden. Rare earth elements were first identified in a mineral unearthed from a quarry in Ytterby, a small town not far from Stockholm, in 1787. Yttrium, ytterbium, erbium and terbium are all named for Ytterby; many other rare earths have Scandinavian names, such as holmium, named for Stockholm, and scandium, named for Scandinavia.

But it's not the oddness of their names that makes the rare earths odd. It's the unusual arrangement of electrons in rare earth atoms that gives them their peculiar properties. And it's that electron arrangement that banishes most of the rare earths to a row sequestered beneath the main body of the periodic table. (Scandium and yttrium join the league of rare earths by virtue of occupying the two spaces above the single square reserved for the 15 other elements in the row below.)

Scientists have spent decades decoding the complicated interactions among rare earth electrons, attempting to explain and predict the curious properties that make the rare earths so valuable in gadgets and other technologies--most notably in products requiring powerful magnetic materials.

Limits on their availability have encouraged scientists to devise ways of reducing the need for rare earths, whether by using less of them or by finding novel magnet technologies that don't need them at all, as Devin Powell reports in this issue (Page 18). But in the meantime, the rare earths remain among the most versatile class of substances known in nature, useful for everything from providing superior sound in small speakers to giving colors to TV screens.

Perhaps of greater value, though, is the example of atomic complexity that the rare earths provide for probing the connections between macroscopic physical properties and subatomic machinations. Oddities in the rare earths' properties have induced scientists to pursue a detailed understanding of atoms with many electrons in atypical arrangements. Mysteries underlying the rare earths' unusual features have led to deeper knowledge about how electrons interact with their nuclei, with neighboring atoms and with each other. Some of that knowledge will no doubt be needed to make better use of rare earths in the future--or to figure out new ways to do what only the rare earths can do now.

--Tom Siegfried, Editor in Chief

COPYRIGHT 2011 Science Service, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:FROM THE EDITOR
Author:Siegfried, Tom
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 27, 2011
Previous Article:By land or by sea in the earth sciences' 'space race'.
Next Article:Say what?

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters