Discovery and early history of rare earth

Rare earth elements became known to the world with the discovery of the black mineral “ytterbite” (renamed to gadolinite in 1800) by Lieutenant Carl Axel Arrhenius in 1787, at a quarry in the village of Ytterby, Sweden.

Arrhenius’ “ytterbite” reached Johan Gadolin, a Royal Academy of Turku professor, and his analysis yielded an unknown oxide (earth) which he called yttria. Anders Gustav Ekeberg isolated beryllium from the gadolinite but failed to recognize other elements which the ore contained. After this discovery in 1794 a mineral from Bastnäs near Riddarhyttan, Sweden, which was believed to be an iron-tungsten mineral, was re-examined by Jöns Jacob Berzelius and Wilhelm Hisinger. In 1803 they obtained a white oxide and called it ceria. Martin Heinrich Klaproth independently discovered the same oxide and called it ochroia.Discovery and early history of rare earth

Thus by 1803 there were two known rare earth elements, yttrium and cerium, although it took another 30 years for researchers to determine that other elements were contained in the two ores ceria and yttria (the similarity of the rare earth metals’ chemical properties made their separation difficult).

In 1839 Carl Gustav Mosander, an assistant of Berzelius, separated ceria by heating the nitrate and dissolving the product in nitric acid. He called the oxide of the soluble salt lanthana. It took him three more years to separate the lanthana further into didymia and pure lanthana. Didymia, although not further separable by Mosander’s techniques was a mixture of oxides.

In 1842 Mosander also separated the yttria into three oxides: pure yttria, terbia and erbia (all the names are derived from the town name “Ytterby”). The earth giving pink salts he called terbium; the one which yielded yellow peroxide he called erbium.

So in 1842 the number of rare earth elements had reached six: yttrium, cerium, lanthanum, didymium, erbium and terbium.

Nils Johan Berlin and Marc Delafontaine tried also to separate the crude yttria and found the same substances that Mosander obtained, but Berlin named (1860) the substance giving pink salts erbium and Delafontaine named the substance with the yellow peroxide terbium. This confusion led to several false claims of new elements, such as the mosandrium of J. Lawrence Smith, or the philippium and decipium of Delafontaine.