Terbium, #65

There’s a quarry near the village of Ytterby in Sweden that is the first source of the lanthanoid (rare-earth) elements Ytterbium (Yb, #70), Erbium (Er, #68) and Terbium (#65).

It’s also the place where Yttrium (Y, #39) was discovered. Yttrium is often lumped with the above three even if it doesn’t fit in the lanthanoid f-block scheme. Its upper neighbor in column 3, Scandium (Sc, #21), was first isolated from the same quarry, as were the other rare-earths Holmium (Ho, #67), Thulium (Tm, #69), and Gadolinium (Gd, #64).

Here’s a periodic table:

If you click on the image it will get bigger.

Note that the lanthanide series (lanthanoid is more correct but not typically used) “emerges” from column 3 where Sc and Y reside. Ideally the table would “stretch” to include the two lower rows (pink in the figure) on the left-hand side of the metals (yellow).

Terbium, like its neighbors, has only become important in the modern, high-tech world. The rare-earths are in big demand these days. Terbium compounds are fluorescent and are used in green phosphors. They are also used as dopants in solid state devices and are alloyed with iron and other materials to make electronic devices.

World terbium production is perhaps “a couple hundred tons” per year. Most of this comes from China. The U.S. has a few sources of Dysprosium (Dy, #66) and terbium is a by-product of that process. Here in California MP Materials operates the Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine and Processing Facility in the Mojave Desert near the Nevada border.

Canadian company Ucore plans to develop a rare-earths mine and processing plant at Bokan Mountain on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. Here’s the setting (the nearest city is Ketchikan):

There’s been a lot of squawking from Washington, D.C. about China controlling the market for key materials like rare-earths. If that geopolitical concern is truly important then we’ll have to find more domestic supplies. Digging big holes in faraway places is the only way to do that. At least right now. Perhaps we’ll be motivated by the environmental disruption from mining to set up proper recycling. After all, tech devices die and get replaced at an alarming rate. All that “e-waste” should be re-processed! Or we’ll find new ways to do things and won’t need stuff like terbium. Better yet we’ll use fewer things overall and measure our wealth by quality instead of quantity!

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