Answer Man: What are rare earth elements?

News-DemocratMarch 29, 2014 

Your paper recently ran a story about China and rare earth elements. Good story, but the writer never mentioned what the rare earth elements are. Those of us who like trivia need to know these things. -- J.S., of Belleville

I suppose like most people, I haven't thought much about rare earth since Peter Rivera and the boys hit No. 4 on the charts with "Get Ready" in 1970.

But here's something you might find interesting: Just like Rare Earth records, rare earth elements are not particularly rare. Current geologists estimate there are about 120 million tons still in the Earth's crust. About 120,000 tons are produced each year. Cerium, for example, is about as abundant as copper. Thulium and lutetium are thought to be 200 times more abundant than gold.

The trouble is that while there's relatively lots of the stuff around, it's usually never found in concentrations high enough to make mining economical. So while total quantities of several match those of nickel, zinc and lead, they are rarely found in extractable amounts, thus leading to the name "rare earth."

The first ones to be discovered were in the black mineral ytterbite -- later renamed gadolinite -- found in 1787 at a quarry near Ytterby, Sweden. After 16 years of analysis, the mineral produced the first two rare earth elements -- yttrium, now No. 39 on the periodic table, and the previously mentioned cerium, No. 58.

Since then, usually 15 more such substances considered rare earth elements have been found. The bulk of them run from Nos. 57 to 71 on the periodic table. They are the so-called lanthanide elements -- taken from the Greek "lanthanein," which means "to be hidden," a fitting description.

They are, in order, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium. Finally, in addition to yttrium, scandium (No. 21) is often considered such an element, too.

These elements are in the headlines because they are used in everything from cellphones and fluorescent lighting to wind turbines, cellphones and rechargeable batteries for all those hybrid cars. What concerns many is that China has four times more reserves -- and is currently producing about six times more of the stuff than all other nations combined.

Because this is such an important topic, I'll probably quiz you on these and all the other elements next week. So to learn them, may I suggest memorizing Tom Lehrer's "The Elements," sung to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Modern Major-General's Song" from "The Pirates of Penzance." Even if you don't like science, I'll bet you get a chuckle at www.privatehand.com/flash/elements.html. Just click on the smiling atom.

For more serious facts and figures, go to geology.com/articles/rare-earth-elements.

You recently wrote about a 1930s soda bottle from Breese. Well, I have a 1916 Whistle bottle from Granite City. What can you tell me about that? -- R.E., of Belleville

I remember when Metro Shooting Supplies at 209 N. Illinois in Belleville was a Vess soda bottling plant. So, as the product slogan went, whenever our family was thirsty, we'd just Whistle up there for a case of their bubbly.

But long before I was making soda runs, the folks in Granite City were getting in on the ground floor of the orange soda. In 1913 Charles Hufschmidt and Joseph Ranft began a bottling business, which moved into the Wagner bottling building in 1915 and then became Ranft & Boyd in 1916. It was also 1916 when they were granted the first franchise to bottle and distribute Whistle soda, according to a detailed history of Granite City at www.granitecity.illinois.gov.

The soda company, by the way, also was founded in 1916 in St. Louis by Sylvester "Vess" Jones, who developed the trademark name.

Just before Christmas, you suggested that eggnog might be found here again around Easter. Any update? -- R.T., of Fairview Heights

Santa Claus has indeed passed his eggnog-making duties off to the Easter Bunny this spring.

Just this week, I see Shop 'n Save advertising quarts of Prairie Farms Easter Nog at $2 per quart, just as the local dairy promised. You also might check where Dean's products are sold, too.

You might want to drink up so it comes back next year. As a teetotaling Frank Bartles might have said in those 1980s wine cooler ads, "And thank you for your support."

Today's trivia

Speaking of rare earth elements, in what common, non-electronic object would you find most of the scandium used in the United States?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: It was originally known as the Cappella Maggiore -- the "Greater Chapel" in Vatican City. But by 1470, it was reportedly in terrible shape with its walls leaning. So, between 1473 and 1481, Pope Sixtus IV had it rebuilt. Today, whether we know it or not, we remember his name every time we talk about the Sistine Chapel with its masterpiece of a ceiling that Michelangelo painted from about 1508 to 1512.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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