Rare earth elements are commonly used in fields like medicine, science, and manufacturing. While they’re not always “rare,” they are typically highly dispersed in nature and difficult to extract. They tend to stick together, and usually occur in the same ore deposits as lanthanides.
What new uses are being found for these seventeen elements, and more specifically, rare earth metals and salts? Noah Chemicals has been watching the following three developments closely.
- Rare Earth Metals as Super-Strong Magnets
With the advancement of eco-friendly vehicles, there has been some concern over the future of elements like palladium and rhodium, used in catalytic converters. The good news for chemists is that there are a lot of promising developments in the use of rare earth metals for incredibly strong magnets. Why do magnets matter? Because small, lightweight magnets are an integral part of the motors that power everything from electric hybrid vehicles to gas-saving drones. Neodymium, holmium, and samarium all have potent magnetic properties caused by their electron arrangement. With a host of “unpaired” outer electrons, these rare earth metals are highly magnetically charged.
- Color and Light Displays
As our technology improves, so too do the chemical processes behind it. In decades past, toxic chemicals have (often unknowingly) been used to create vivid colors in everything from acrylic paint to school bus shellac. Safer, more stable chemical compounds created from rare earth elements are solving many of today’s most complex light and color conundrums, from creating better electronic displays to improving the color-capturing properties of camera lenses. Lanthanum, cerium + sulfur, and europium are all being integrated into many of today’s commercial electronics to improve the aesthetics of our devices.
- Defense and Transportation/Aerospace Applications
There has been a resurgence over the global battle for minerals over the past few years, in part because of an increased demand for rare earth metals. In the U.S., these elements are increasingly used to create hyper-strength metals for aircraft engines (gadolinium), as well as to strengthen aluminum and steel alloys (erbium, scandium). Certain metals (praseodymium, neodymium) can improve the function of high-focus lasers, while others (lanthanum) are used to create specialty glass. From a defense standpoint, producing these metals on-shore is both efficient and discreet. From a transportation perspective, these metals could make commercial, military, and personal transport a more eco-friendly and cost-effective process.
Rare earth metals and salts are one of the most fascinating classes of elements. We’ve barely scratched the surface of these versatile chemicals, but their global applications are promising.