We live in a complicated world. Our lives are driven by unfathomably complex systems that overlap in a cacophony of technology to deliver us our cellular service, Internet, groceries, health care, transportation, consumer goods, music, TV, movies and everything in between. One of the results of our headlong rush into a technologically augmented world is a veritable mountain of equipment. Our cultural relics are now iPads and iPhones, Androids and laptops, each made up of thousands of components, each component potentially made up of thousands of sub-components themselves.
All of these technological building blocks are constructed using a palette of component materials that span the periodic table. Whereas 50 years ago, our society built most of its material goods out of wood, iron, copper, gold, silver, and a handful of types of plastics, today we require a lot more. A computer chip alone can be made up of more than 60 different elements.
Many of the elements found on our list are categorized as “rare earth elements,” a designation that describes 17 elements that are typically found in the same kind of ore and that exhibit similar chemical properties. Rare earth elements aren’t actually all that rare in terms of global distribution, but they aren’t usually found in dense concentrations. You have to mine a whole lot of ore to get a little bit of a rare earth element.
Rare earth elements have been in the news lately because China, which mines most of the world’s rare earth elements, has been slashing export of rare earth elements, prodding nations like the U.S. to turn to its own dormant rare earth mines and production facilities.
Here are 10 elements crucial to modern life that you rely on more than you realize:
Gallium is a soft and silvery metal with a melting point just above room temperature. It’s chemical symbol is Ga and it has an atomic number of 31.
What it’s used in? Nearly all gallium used in industry today goes towards building computer chips and electronics. Gallium is used in doping semiconductors and in blue-light LEDs.
Where it’s found? Gallium is a byproduct of the production of aluminum and zinc, both which are mined all over the world.
How rare is it? Not very. Aluminum and zinc deposits are mined on every continent (save Antarctica).
Indium is a super soft (it’s easily cut with a knife) shiny metal with numerous applications in computers and electronics. It’s chemical symbol is In and it has an atomic number of 49.
What it’s used in?: Indium is used in making LCD screens, computer chips, LEDs and solar panels.
Where it’s found? Indium is mostly derived as a byproduct of zinc production, which, as we mentioned, is mined all over the world.
How rare is it? Although zinc is mined all over the world, Scientific American estimates that the world will deplete its known reserves of high-indium ore by 2028. However, there is a lot of work being done to develop new sources for indium and according to a report put out by the Indium Corporation, global indium reserves could be as high as 53,000 metric tons (that's a lot).
Tellurium is a rare and brittle metalloid (an element with attributes of both metals and non-metals) with applications in solar panels and computer chips. It’s chemical symbol is Te and it has an atomic number of 52.
What it’s used in? Tellurium, in the compound cadmium telluride, is a major component of high-efficiency solar panels. In addition, it’s used in making semiconductors and rewritable optical media (CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray).
Where it’s found? Tellurium is produced as a byproduct of the refinement of copper and is mostly produced in the United States, Japan, Russia and Canada.
How rare is it? Tellurium is relatively rare. It can require 500 tons of copper ore to produce just one pound of tellurium.
Praseodymium is a soft metal that is used to create strong alloys used in aircraft engines. It’s chemical symbol is Pr and it has an atomic number of 59.
What it’s used in? Praseodymium is mostly used as an alloying agent with magnesium to craft parts for aircraft engines. It can also be combined with neodymium, another rare earth element, to form high-power magnets.
Where it’s found? Praseodymium is found in small amounts within a number of minerals including monazite and bastnäsite, a mineral with wide global distribution. Today, China and the United States produce the majority of the world’s supply of praseodymium.
How rare is it? Not very. Though it’s not typically found in high concentrations, advances in refining technology means it’s easier and cheaper today to derive it from other minerals.
In it’s pure form, samarium is a silvery white metal valued for its use in manufacturing advanced magnets. It’s chemical symbol is Sm and it has an atomic number of 62.
What it’s used in? When combined with cobalt, samarium forms into a high quality magnet that’s used in headphones, motors, and musical instruments and equipment.
Where it’s found? Most of the world supply of samarium is produced in China.
How rare is it? Samarium is relatively abundant and refined as a byproduct of a number of commercially active minerals.
Dysprosium, a rare earth element, is silvery and soft enough to cut with a knife. It’s chemical symbol is Dy and it has an atomic number of 66.
What it’s used in? Dysprosium is used in making lasers, in nuclear energy plants, and in magnetic applications like computer hard drives.
Where it’s found? Like sarium, dysprosium is a byproduct of the mining of a number of minerals. Almost all of the dysprosium in the world is produced in China.
How rare is it? It’s not very rare in terms of global distribution, but almost all the dysprosium in the world is produced in China. The U.S. Department of Energy has identified dysprosium as a critical element for the clean technology industry.
Lanthanum is a white metallic element with a chemical symbol of La and an atomic number of 57.
What it’s used in? Lanthanum is a major component of nickel-metal hydride batteries used in hybrid cars. It’s also used in smaller amounts in carbon arc lamps, used by the television and movie industry, and batteries, arc welding equipment, and as a additive to steel to improve malleability.
Where it’s found? Lanthanum production is heaviest in China, the United States, Brazil and India.
How rare is it? Lanthanum is one of the most common of the rare earth elements. Lanthanum comprises up to a third of the overall composition of the composite ores monazite and bastnäsite, both which are heavily mined all over the world.
It’s chemical symbol is Nd and it has an atomic number of 60.
What it’s used in? Neodymium is most used in combination with praseodymium, another element on our list, to create powerful magnets used in things like headphones, magnets, wind turbines, hybrid cars, computer hard drives, and electric motors and generators. It's also used to color glass and to make lighter flints and welder's goggles.
Where it’s found? Neodymium is principally extracted from monazite and bastnäsite ores, which are distributed around the world but chiefly mined in China, the United States, Brazil, India and Australia
How rare is it? Not at all. Neodymium is one of the least rare earth elements.
Terbium is a silvery soft metal that you can cut with a knife. It’s chemical symbol is Tb and it has an atomic number of 65.
What it’s used in? Most of the world’s output of refined terbium is used to make light bulbs and TV tubes but it’s also used in specialized fuel cells that operate at high temperatures, solid state hard drives, naval sonar systems, and in sensors. It is also used to produce laser light and green phosphors in TV tubes.
Where it’s found? China again takes the top spot for producing terbium. Southern China has rich deposits of clays containing terbium though it’s also present in much smaller concentrations in monazite and bastnäsite, two minerals mined for rare earth.
How rare is it? Moderately so. Most of the world’s supply of terbium is in China, but it is found in other minerals mined all around the world.
Erbium is a rare earth element that, like its chemical cousins, is a silvery-white metal in its pure form. It’s chemical symbol is Er and it has an atomic number of 68.
What it’s used in? Erbium is used to color lasers, in nuclear power plant technology, and as a doping agent in fiber optic amplifiers. One form of erbium is utilized for its pink color in glass and photographic filters.
Where it’s found? Erbium was first discovered in Sweden, though today most of the world’s supply is produced in China.
How rare is it? Not very. Erbium is present in ores all over the world. Even though China produces most of the world’s supply at the moment, that will change as other countries respond to China’s supply clampdown.
Still hunting for more stories about rare earth elements? Check out these MNN stories:
- How the U.S. is getting back into the rare earth metal mining race
- Ocean floor yields mass deposits of rare earth element
- Rare metal shortage threatens high-tech innovation