Move over, maple syrup! Rare earth elements are Canada’s next big thing. Though few people have heard of these wonder materials, they play an elementary part in the making of a number of technological products. In honour of Earth Day, we’re celebrating Canada’s incredible natural resources, including the rare earth metals that could give Canada a global competitive edge.
Also called lanthanides, rare earth metals are a group of seventeen elements that share a similar chemical make-up. On the periodic table, they sit between barium (Ba) and hafnium (Hf). Their name is a bit deceiving — rare earth metals are actually quite abundant, though they’re difficult to extract.
Just about everything exciting! Rare earth elements are used in the manufacturing of lasers, plasma screens, telescope lenses, X-ray systems, magnets, and hybrid and electric cars, just to name a few hi-tech applications.
According to a report put together by Parliament, as much as half the world’s known supply of rare earth deposits exists in Canada! Although China has typically controlled the bulk of the world’s rare earth elements production, their stricter export controls in recent years have caused other countries to begin stockpiling their own supplies. A number of initiatives have begun right here at home, to ramp up the mining of Canadian rare earth metals safely and responsibly.
Given the metals’ uses as part of the most cutting-edge technology products, a large supply of usable rare earth materials would give Canada some enormous global geology clout.
The uses of rare earth elements are many and varied. We're broken down five rare earth metals and their most fascinating applications.
Lanthanum was discovered in the mineral cerite in 1839; however, it took chemists almost another century to find a way to purify the metal. Today, the mineral bastmasite is a source of pure lanthanum. The element’s applications range from its use in film studio lights and lens-making to refining petroleum.
Cerium was the first of the lanthanides to be discovered. The main use of cerium is in making phosphors, which are chemicals that produce lights of different colours. Phosphors are present in flatscreen TVs and bulbs.
Gadolinium and its mineral ore gadolinite are named after the Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin, who discovered the element. Gadolinium compounds are used to obtain clear MRI scans — a gadolinium compound is injected into the patient’s blood prior to the scan.
Dysprosium was discovered in 1186, though it took until the 1950s to purify it. This metal is often used with neodymium to produce magnets that are used in car batteries, wind turbines, and generators.
Ytterbium tends to be more reactive than other lanthanide metals, and it’s stored in sealed containers to stop the metal from reacting with oxygen. A small amount of pure ytterbium is used in making steel, while its compounds are used in some lasers.
To discover more about Canada's geological natural resources, as well as all the elements in the world, pick up The Elements Book.
Image credits: X-ray: Fotolia: dimdimich, Camera: 123RF.com: Alexey Astakhov / whiterabbit, MRI: PunchStock: Image Source, Turbines: 123RF.com: jezper