The Dangerous Element Yttrium

Introduction to the Element Yttrium

Yttrium is a soft, lustrous silver-colored rare earth element, found in group 3 of the periodic table. As a rare earth element, it shares similar chemical and physical properties to the lanthanides and scandium. Some of these properties include being malleable metals that are highly reactive, highly conductive, can act as strong permanent magnets. Additional similarities include difficulty to extract and purify. Finally, yttrium finds a great deal of applications in medicine and technology, such as lighting, PET scans, and as a catalyst in synthesis reactions. Read on to learn more about this fascinating element!

Ten Fun Facts About Yttrium

  • Yttrium is a heavy rare earth element.
  • Yttrium was discovered by Johan Gasoline in Ytterby, Sweden (1794), the namesake of the element.
  • Yttrium was first isolated by Friedrech Wöhler in 1828.
  • Yttrium is commonly found in uranium ores with other rare earth elements.
  • Yttrium was found in lunar rock samples found during the American Apollo Project.
  • Yttrium can be found in human cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and saliva.
  • YInMn, a yttrium-containing blue pigment, is the first inorganic blue pigment discovered since cobalt blue.
  • Yttrium has one one stable isotope, 89Y.
  • The most stable radioisotopes are Y-88 which has a half life of 106.65 days and Y-91 with a half life of 58.51 days.
  • Yttrium is usually found in rare earth mineral ores like monazite and bastnaesite
  • Yttrium is a silvery white, moderately soft, ductile metal.

Yttrium on the Periodic Table

Yttrium on the periodic table and properties

The symbol Y represents yttrium. Yttrium has an atomic number of 39, meaning there are 39 protons in its nucleus, and 39 electrons in its neutral form. Yttrium has many isotopes, but the most stable isotope is yttrium-89, which has 50 neutrons in its nucleus.

Belonging to Group 3 of the periodic table, yttrium is a transition metal. Transition metals are known for having diverse chemical properties and applications. On the Pauling electronegativity scale, yttrium possesses a moderately low electronegativity value of around 1.2. Yttrium’s electron configuration is [Kr] 4d¹ 5s², with two valence electrons. This means that Yttrium can potentially lose these electrons to form positive ions (cations) or share them in covalent bonds with other elements to achieve a stable electron configuration. However, due to the relatively low electronegativity of Yttrium, it is more likely to lose electrons to form cations rather than form covalent bonds.

Yttrium in Materials and Technology

One significant application of yttrium is in superconductors, where it is a critical component. Superconductors are materials that can conduct electricity with no resistance at low temperatures. These materials could make electrical transmission more efficient which can make electronics faster and cheaper. Superconductors also find use in maglev trains, particle accelerators, and MRI machines.

A maglev train in Shanghai, China. Magnetic levitation trains use electromagnets to float above the tracks. They are faster, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly than traditional trains.

Another use of yttrium are compounds containing it which have applications in lighting. Yttrium plays a key role in the production of LEDs and phosphors, and is responsible for the vivid colors in TV screens and energy-efficient lighting. This is due to the fact that Yttrium-based phosphors are great at converting ultraviolet light into visible light, making them essential for bright, energy-saving displays. It also serves as an inorganic catalyst in various chemical synthesis reactions, including plastics, specialized compounds, and even fuels, increasing the rates of reactions and contributing to more sustainable industrial processes. One of the most well known applications is as a catalyst for the polymerization of ethane.

Yttrium in Medicine

Yttrium also has a great deal of applications in medicine and medical research. In radiation therapy, particularly in cancer treatment, yttrium-90 delivers targeted radiation to cancerous cells while sparing healthy surrounding tissue. This precision makes it a valuable tool against types of cancer including liver cancer and certain types of lymphoma.

Yttrium also has uses in medical screening technology. Yttrium-86, a stable isotope, is used in positron emission tomography (PET) imaging. In PET scans, it acts as a radiotracer to visualize metabolic processes within the body. This can aid medical professionals in early detection and monitoring of a number of medical conditions, including cancer, neurological disorders, and heart disease.

A PET scanner. Y-90 is just one example of a tracer used for these scans.

Another area yttrium is used in is orthopedic medicine. For example, yttrium-stabilized zirconia, a compound containing yttrium oxide, is used to produce bioinert ceramic implants for joint replacements. These implants offer excellent biocompatibility, corrosion resistance, and mechanical strength.

Yttrium Applications in Today’s World

Yttrium has a lot of applications across various industries! One example is in the field of electronics, where yttrium compounds are used to create phosphors for electronic displays, including LED screens and color television tubes. As a result of yttrium’s unique luminescent properties we get the vibrant colors we see in these displays. Yttrium also finds use in lithium iron phosphate batteries for increasing their energy capacity and durability. Both ceramic joint replacement implants and thermal barriers in gas turbine engines contain Yttrium-stabilized zirconia. Similarly, aerospace components employ yttrium to strengthen metallic materials.

The Discovery of Yttrium

In 1787, the Swedish chemist, Karl Arrhenius (the one who also discovered the Arrhenius equation!) sent a rock found near a quarry at Ytterby to chemist Johann Gadolin in Finland for analysis, assuming that it was some undiscovered form of tungsten. This mineral contained a mixture of rare earth elements, making it different to isolate and differentiate them from each other. However, in 1794, while testing the rock, Gadolin discovered the presence of a new oxide compound (later found to be yttrium oxide, Y₂O₃) that constituted 38% of its weight. He named the element after the village it was found in, but was unable to isolate yttrium itself. Later, in 1828, Friedrich Wohler isolated yttrium by reacting yttrium chloride with potassium. When Carl Mosander, in 1843, examined yttrium oxide thoroughly, he found two more oxides, terbium and erbium.

Yttrium Compounds

Yttrium Oxide (Y₂O₃)

A white powder used in the production of phosphors for color television tubes, LEDs, and as a component in ceramics and glass.

Yttrium Chloride (YCl₃)

A chemical compound used in the production of phosphors, catalysts, and as a starting material for other yttrium compounds.

Yttrium Fluoride (YF₃)

Used as a component in optical coatings, particularly in lenses and windows for infrared spectroscopy.

Yttrium Nitrate (Y(NO₃)₃):

Used in the preparation of other yttrium compounds and as a catalyst in some chemical reactions.

Yttrium Acetate (Y(CH₃COO)₃):

A precursor for the synthesis of other yttrium-based materials.

Yttrium Carbonate (Y₂(CO₃)₃):

Used in the production of yttrium-based phosphors and as a raw material for other yttrium compounds.

Yttrium Hydroxide (Y(OH)₃):

A white solid used in the production of yttrium compounds and as a starting material for yttrium-based ceramics.

Yttrium Oxidation State

Unlike most transition metals, yttrium does not have a wide range of oxidation states. In most of its compounds and chemical reactions, yttrium loses three electrons to achieve a stable electron configuration, making it have a +3 oxidation state. This is the most common oxidation state for yttrium in its compounds. However, like many transition metals, yttrium can also exhibit other oxidation states, although they are less common: yttrium commonly occasionally occupies as an 0, 1+, and 2+ states when in an organoyttrium compound, a compound containing a carbon-yttrium bond.

Physical Properties of Yttrium

  • Melting point: 1799 K; 1526 °C; ​2779 °F
  • Boiling point: 3203 K ; 2930 °C; ​5306 °F)
  • Density: 4.472 g/cm3
  • Heat of fusion: 11.42 kJ/mol
  • Heat of vaporization: 332.7 kJ/mol
  • Molar heat capacity: 363 J/(mol*K)
  • Electronegativity: 1.22
  • Classification: Rare Earth Element; Transition Metal
  • Natural abundance on Earth: 31 ppm
  • Electron configuration: [Kr]4d15s2
  • Found naturally in minerals: thortveitite, monazite, and bastnaesite
  • Toxicity: Highly toxic

Where Can I Buy Elemental Yttrium?

Yttrium-89, the most common and stable form of Yttrium, can be purchased from some chemical suppliers such as Luciteria.

If you want to learn about other elements, check out our INTERACTIVE PERIODIC TABLE!