Monday, October 10, 2011

Lutetium: Underutilized Rare Earth Element?

Ever since its discovery in 1907 does chemical element lutetium truly deserve the title as an underutilized member of the rare earth family?

By: Ringo Bones

Lutetium, chemical symbol Lu, is named after Lutetia, the ancient name for Paris. The element was discovered back in 1907 by Georges Urbain of France and by Carl Auer von Welsbach of Austria. And it is the heaviest of the rare earth metals.
Although rare earth alloys intended for commercial use – such as misch metal – costs as low as US$3.15 a pound, a pound of chemically pure lutetium costs US$1,300 – or about US$108 an ounce, which is more expensive than gold at the time when gold prices hovers at around US$38 an ounce for much of the 1960s.

Back in the 1960s – when America was at the height of the Space Age – many of lutetium’s chemical and physical properties were yet to be studied – i.e. lutetium’s practical value has yet to be discovered. Currently, as the heaviest and most expensive member of the rare earth elements, a naturally occurring radioactive isotope of lutetium is used in determining the age of recovered meteorites in relation to the age of the planet Earth. In the petrochemical industry, lutetium is now often used as a super-efficient catalyst for polymerization, alkylation and hydrogenation.

Alkylation is a petrochemical refining process in which light gaseous hydrocarbons are combined to produce high-octane components in gasoline. The light hydrocarbons consist of olefins such as propylene and butylenes and isoparaffins such as isobutene. These compounds are fed into a reactor where under the influence of a sulfuric acid or hydrofluoric acid catalyst combine to form a mixture of heavier hydrocarbons. The liquid fraction of this mixture, known as alkylate, consists mainly of isooctane, a compound that lends excellent antiknock characteristics to unleaded gasoline.

Alkylation units were installed in petroleum refineries in the 1930s, but the petrochemical process became especially important during World War II, where there was a great demand for reasonably-priced aviation gasoline. Since then, alkylation is used in combination with fractional distillation, catalytic cracking and isomerization to increase a petroleum refineries’ yield of automotive gasoline. Although other rare earth based catalysts – like cerium - are used in alkylation. But lutetium based catalysts require way much less energy to keep the chemical reaction going in comparison to other petrochemical alkylation catalysts.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

An American Rare Earth Industry Revival?

As Mainland China looks more and more likely to reduce future rare earth element export quotas, will an American rare earth industry revival fill in the global shortfall?

By: Ringo Bones

If you're one of the few concerned citizens of this planet closely watching the concerns surrounding the global rare earth metals demand, then it is inevitable that one of these days, a news that the United States is seriously playing catch-up with the established 21st Century global rare earth industry - namely Mainland China - which controls 97% of the global rare earth industry. But is America's rare earth industry revival nothing more than a toe-in-the-water exercise in economic terms?

In a July 12, 2011 interview with the BBC, Molycorp spokesman Jim Sims says that Molycorp has already reactivated a "retired" open-pit rare earth mine high in the Mojave Desert of California that has been closed 10 years ago. Even if the long-term economic and political will driving this endeavor remains uncertain, are there other obvious advantages of reviving America's home-grown rare earth industry?

Whatever the incumbent and/or incoming administration decides in the near future, America's concern for securing her rare earth metal demands is not just combined to high-tech and carbon-neutral technologies anymore like laptops, loudspeaker magnets, hard-disk drives, color TVs, electric cars and wind turbines anymore. Rare earths also serve a very important component in the American defense industry. From unmanned drones, actuators in JDAMs and guided missiles just to name a few. The question now is not only whether or not the occupational health and environmental concerns surrounding the revival of America's rare earth industry is worth it in the long-run, but also if America can still afford to chose not to revive and then expand its long dormant rare earth metals industry?

Monday, April 11, 2011

The IUPAC: Too Rare Earth Friendly?

It might be too friendly in an academic sense, but given that 2011 is the UN International Year of Chemistry does the relation between the IUPAC and the Rare Earth elements deserve a more thorough and renewed discussion?

By: Ringo Bones

Unlike the International Astronomical Union - or IAU – which controversially dethroned Pluto as a bona fide planet of our Solar System back in 2006, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry or IUPAC has since its establishment managed to steer clear from such academically controversial maneuverings, namely re-evaluating the status of some supposedly true-blue rare earth elements. And given that 2011 has just been designated by UNESCO as the International Year of Chemistry, should the IUPAC at least try to look into the issue this year? But first, here’s an overview of the IUPAC and the 2011 International Year of Chemistry.

The declaration of the United Nation’s 2011 International Year of Chemistry was decided as far back as December 2008 I New York and Paris during the 63rd General Assembly of the United Nations when it adopted a resolution proclaiming 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry, placing UNESCO and the IUPAC at the helm of the event. Ethiopia submitted the UN Resolution calling the Year which would celebrate the achievements of the science of chemistry and its contributions to the well-being of humanity. The year will also draw attention to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005 – 2014. National and international activities carried out during 2011 will emphasize the importance of sustaining natural resources.

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry or IUPAC was formed back in 1919 by chemists from industry and academia. For over 90 years, the “Union” has succeeded in fostering worldwide communications in the chemical sciences and in uniting academic, industrial and public sector chemistry in a common language. Given that 2011 is the UN International Year of Chemistry could this inevitably “tempt” the IUPAC to do a somewhat questionable academic stunt – like what the IAU did with Pluto back in 2006 - by booting out lanthanum as a true-blue rare earth element?

Even though the Rare Earth family or kingdom of elements is also known as the Lanthanide Series named after lanthanum, lanthanum possessed enough anomalies that lanthanum’s inclusion in the rare earth series of elements could have been easily called into question. Ever since after thorough scientific analysis since its discovery, element number 57 lanthanum chemical symbol La, can be considered a maverick among the rare earth elements. In the strictest sense, it is not actually a member of the rare earth inner transition series since it does not have a 4f-electron. Lanthanum’s differentiating electron – from barium – is found in the 5d-orbital. Although lanthanum’s chemical properties does very so resemble those of the rare earth family of elements that the IUPAC had never considered booting it out.

And lanthanum is not the only atomically and chemically controversial member of the rare earth series of elements. The IUPAC has since placed scandium in the Group III B of the First Transition Metals portion of the Periodic Table even though scandium have chemical properties and an atomic structure that intriguely mimics that of the lanthanide series or rare earth elements. So too does yttrium which possesses chemical properties mimicking that of the rare earth elements even though yttrium possesses no 4f-electrons in common with the rare earth elements. Could the 2011 International Year of Chemistry trigger a “revolution” in the Rare Earth Kingdom?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Are Rare Earth Elements Precious Metals?

With only a handful of countries in the whole world mining and refining them and Mainland China planning to reduce their export quotas for 2011, will rare earth metals soon become precious metals?

By: Ringo Bones

Though Paris Hilton has yet to brag about her brand-new 22-karat dysprosium bracelet (or will it be a 22-karat holmium bracelet?) rare earth metal prices will surely rise and become much rarer because the People’s Republic of China had already decided back in January 6, 2011 to cut their rare earth metal export quotas by 35% for the whole of 2011. Will this turn of events inadvertently turn rare earth elements into precious metals?

The Beijing government’s decision to reduce their rare earth metal export quotas instantly posed a real concern for Japan’s high-tech manufacturing firms since electric motors of hybrid cars and other high-tech consumer items like video monitors are very dependent on rare earth metals in their construction and manufacture. The Mainland Chinese rare earth export quota cut had even stepped-up Japan’s plans to explore the mining potential of the seabed of their territorial waters for rare earth elements.

As a very important reiteration, the elements commonly referred to as “rare earths” are neither rare nor earths. These soft and malleable metals only became commercially rare due to the People’s Republic of China flexing their newfound geopolitical clout by controlling their own export quotas. Cerium, the most abundant, is slightly more plentiful than tin and lead. While thulium – the scarcest of the rare earth elements – is only slightly rarer than iodine. The “earth” misnomer arose from the fact that the first source of the elements during their discovery is from the oxides of the elements themselves.

As the current textbook definition of precious metals – when pertaining to the “top three” like gold, silver and platinum – primarily revolves around their beauty, their rarity and high demand that makes them pricey are just incidentally brought upon by economics. While platinum’s usefulness as a very important chemical catalyst might make it as one of the “traditional” precious metals that has a kinship with the rare earth metals in terms of industrial use, rare earth metals – appearance-wise – have never been and probably never will be “attractive enough” to have lend themselves for jewelry use. Probably due to their rather "mediocre" gray-silver sheen.

And it does deserve worthy of a mention that three of the rare earth elements – europium, lanthanum and yttrium – will surely never be used as a fashionably drab jewelry because chemically pure europium, lanthanum and yttrium will corrode within a few hours upon exposure to our oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. Chemically pure specimens of europium, lanthanum and yttrium are often available as a laboratory curiosity as a specimen displayed and sealed in a glass container filled with argon gas. So will rare earth metals ever become precious metals? In price maybe, but don’t count on them winding up as part of Paris Hilton’s bling anytime soon.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dysprosium: The Hard to Get At Rare Earth Element?

Even though this rare earth element and its myriad of uses has yet to become a household name, does dysprosium truly deserve its reputation as the hard to get at rare earth element?

By: Ringo Bones

Given that this rare earth element is never found free in nature, the derivation of its name – dysprositos, Greek for hard to get at – is probably an apt name of its chemical properties that eludes dysprosium’s purification to six-nines level (99.9999% purity) until the advent of modern ion-exchange and solvent-extraction procedures of the mid to late 1950s. Dysprosium, atomic number 66, chemical symbol Dy, is a member of the lanthanide – or rare earth series of elements – which also includes such rare earth metals as cerium, lanthanum and yttrium. Dysprosium has a melting point of about 1,500 degree Celsius and a boiling point of 2,300 degree Celsius.

The discovery of dysprosium was credited to the French chemist Paul Émil Lecoq de Boisbaudran back in 1886. Although Georges Urbain later obtained a reasonably pure sample of the metal in 1906, the free element has never been chemically isolated until the advent of modern ion-exchange and solvent-extraction techniques of the mid to late 1950s.

Dysprosium occurs naturally in minerals usually found in granite or pegmatite veins, such as euxenite, gadolinite, samarskite and xenotime. Dysprosium is also found among the products of nuclear-fission reactions. Dysprosium is separated from other rare earth metals which it occurs via ion-exchange and solvent-extraction methods.

Dysprosium is used primarily in nuclear reactor control rods and its other chief practical use is in nuclear reactors, where it serves as a nuclear “poison” – that is, it is employed as a neutron-eating material to keep the neutron-spawning atomic chain reaction from getting out of hand and also in magnetic alloys.

Dysprosium has a valence of +3 and forms yellow-green colored compounds. Dysprosium is ferromagnetic below – 123 degrees Celsius. Just like pure gallium when chilled with liquid nitrogen, dysprosium will stick to an ordinary bar magnet. And at liquid helium temperatures, dysprosium becomes a superconductor.

Dysprosium’s high magnetic susceptibility makes it useful for data storage devices and as a component of Terfenol-D – a powerful rare earth magnet first used in US Navy sonar systems. Soluble dysprosium salts are mildly toxic while the insoluble salts are considered non-toxic.

Carl Auer von Welsbach: The Rare Earth Kingdom’s Royal Surveyor?

As a well-renowned chemist and a discoverer of a number of rare earth elements, is Carl Auer von Welsbch the Rare Earth Kingdom’s Royal Surveyor?

By: Ringo Bones

Born in Vienna back in September 1, 1858, little did the whole world knew that Carl Auer von Welsbach will in a few years time be almost single-handedly exploring and surveying the then relatively unknown “Rare Earth Kingdom” in Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table for the benefit of not just the world of chemistry, but for all mankind. The exploratory journey started when Welsbach first studied chemistry under Robert W. Bunsen at the University of Heidelberg, where Welsbach made investigations in the chemistry of rare-earth metals. Later, Welsbach attended the University of Vienna.

In his exploration of the Rare Earth Kingdom, Welsbach became the first chemist to isolate the elements neodymium, samarium and praseodymium back in 1885. he is also best known for his invention in 1885 of the Welsbach Mantle – a means for increasing the illumination given off by a gas jet – which soon after found world-wide use. The Welsbach Mantle consisted of a wad of cotton which had been dipped in a salt solution of zirconium or some other suitable element. The mantle was supported over a gas jet, which would burn away the cotton the first time it was lit., leaving a brittle network of filament which becomes incandescent at a much lower temperature – thus making gas jet illumination much more fuel efficient.

During the advent of electric lighting, Welsbach invented the osmium filament for electric lights. And in 1907, Welsbach managed to isolate another rare earth element called lutetium to a reasonable degree of chemical purity back in 1907 before the advent of the post-World War II zeolite ion-exchange techniques. For a number of years, Welsbach was a member of technical societies in Vienna, Stockholm and Berlin. He died in Carinthia on August 4, 1929. Before passing away, Carl Auer von Welsbach managed to map much of the rare earth portion of the periodic table for the ease and convenience of a generation of chemists following his footsteps.