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?


  1. I too wonder why the IUPAC had never done a "bone-headed" move like the dethronement of Pluto as a bona-fide planet by the IAU. I just hope that the IUPAC won't go about rearranging the Periodic Table of elements during the 2011 International Year of Chemistry by transferring lanthanum, scandium, and yttrium to the other parts of the Periodic Table. Or this would result in a bloody revolt of the Rare Earth Kingdom in 2011.

  2. Maybe everything in the bottom portion of the Periodic Table of Elements have this "weird chemistry". The advanced ion-exchange procedures used to separate lanthanum from its fellow rare earth metals during refinement is not that different from the ion-exchange methods used to separate plutonium-239 from neptunium-239 after the mostly chemically pure uranium-238 (which also contains a bit of uranium-235) is cooked in an atomic pile to produce nuclear weapons grade plutonium.