39. Yttrium: It’s A Quiet Village

Welcome to the sleepy Swedish town of Ytterby. I hope you like it, because we’ll be spending an awful lot of time there later in the series.

Featured above: Astronaut Michael Collins aboard the Command Service Module during a simulated training mission for the Apollo 11 mission. He would end up spending a lot of time in that seat.

Show Notes

Oops: For a brief amount of time this morning, a version of this episode was posted that included a couple spots where multiple takes of a sentence were left in. Sorry about that! If your podcatcher happened to download that version of the episode, well, enjoy that peek behind the curtain, I guess.

Good For Something: I mentioned that Friedrich Wohler first isolated yttrium. The last time we saw him, Berzelius was roasting him for failing to seal the deal with vanadium, so it’s nice to see him succeed at something.

Y, Really Though, Why? The name situation is even more cumbersome than I had time to explain in this episode. Soon after Mosander named his two discoveries terbia and erbia, everyone else got immediately confused about the whole matter. No one could really keep those two straight. In fact, the mineral now known as terbia was what he dubbed erbia, and vice versa!

Would You Say He Was… Chicken? I mentioned that Marignac broke the Swedish streak when he named element 64 gadolinium, after the Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin. What I cut from the script was that he did so in collaboration with our old pal Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran. PELdB insisted that this discovery take its name after Gadolin, largely because he was still reeling with embarrassment over the “scandal” that he might have named gallium after himself. He hoped that naming another element after another scientist might help clear up his record.

If a trip to Sweden is out of the question, you can view the memorial plaque in Ytterby right here. Photo by Uwezi.

A Ruling Body: All this yttrium-terbium-erbium-ytterbium nonsense went down well before the founding of the International Union Of Pure And Applied Chemistry in 1919. (Happy centenary, IUPAC! If any listeners are in Paris next month, why don’t you stop by their celebration?) I don’t know whether this fiasco was a motivator behind the organization’s creation, but it seems safe to say that nothing like it could ever happen again so long as they sit on the Chemistry Throne.

More Losses In Delivery Than My Amazon Packages: Five percent of electricity loss in infrastructure is an average. In extreme examples, those losses can be as high as 30%. This is less of a problem for some solar panels and wind turbines, though, which tend to generate electricity much closer or even at the site where it will be used.

As Promised: Thoisoi’s entertaining look at a YBCO superconductor, along with a little explanation:

What About The Rendezvous Point On Tatooine: Collins’ job receiving the Lunar Ascent Module really was critically important. If anything went wrong, Armstrong and Aldrin would still be orbiting the moon today. What’s less known is that there were two other strategies competing for NASA’s attention: Direct Ascent, which would only require a single rocket to travel to the moon, land, and ascend; or Earth Orbit Rendezvous, which would shift the docking responsibilities to happen closer to Earth. That way, if anything went wrong, the astronauts could be brought back to Earth with minimal inconvenience.

Both of those were vastly preferred inside NASA’s offices over Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. The ultimate decision to employ LOR may have been the most important decisions of the entire mission. The whole story is fascinating, and recounted on NASA’s website.

Episode Script

Modern technology is heavily dependent on elements like yttrium, which no one even knew existed until a couple centuries ago. Supplies of these elements are a bottleneck for all sorts of consumer, commercial, and industrial products. Whichever nations are fortunate enough to control those supplies can sell them for pretty much any price they want.1

That creates a significant incentive to seek out new, cheaper sources of these elements. So in 2018, a team of Japanese researchers was thrilled to discover a mother lode of yttrium, europium, and scads of other rare earth elements right in their own backyard. They estimated the minerals were so abundant, they won’t run out for at least 500 years.

Unfortunately, it won’t be easy to gather those resources. This deposit is located underwater. And not in some shallow pond, either — it’s nearly 6,000 meters below the surface of the ocean, where the immense water pressure can even crush some submarines.

Compounding the problem is the deposit’s remote location. The nearest island where miners could camp out is Minamitori Island, which is about the size of a city block and more than a thousand miles away from Japan’s population centers.2 3

But for element 39, that kind of hard-to-get behavior is just typical. As we’ll see today, perhaps the most notable characteristic of yttrium is its tendency to pop up in the most isolated places.

Yttrium, however, is not a lonesome metal. Just like the reserves found beneath Minamitori Island, wherever yttrium is found, it’s practically guaranteed to be mixed up with similarly exotic company.

You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.

Today, we’re flung far afield with yttrium.

If you thought Strontian sounded like a backwater town, it looks like a bustling metropolis compared to the Swedish settlement of Ytterby. These days, it’s more of a historical landmark than a place where many people live. The town’s mining industry shut down decades ago, and the few remaining dirt roads are slowly disappearing beneath a carpet of overgrown weeds. If you didn’t already know, you would never guess that this patch of land is where more chemical elements have been discovered than anywhere else in history.

Ytterby wasn’t supposed to be a hub of chemical research. It’s simply where some Swedish industrialists decided to open a mine in the 17th century. There was a decent amount of quartz and feldspar in the ground, which provided critical ingredients for iron and glass manufacturing. It was no different from a thousand other little mining towns around the world.4

Things changed for Ytterby with a visit from a young man named Carl Axel Arrhenius.5 He was driven by a burning curiosity, partly because he was lucky enough to be alive during a scientific revolution. So when Arrhenius found an unusually heavy, black rock at Ytterby, he didn’t just chuck it aside — he scrutinized it, then sent it to a esteemed colleague, Johan Gadolin, for further study.6

His analysis was not done in vain, because this little rock that had been overlooked by countless miners was actually pretty interesting. For starters, there were some never-before-seen minerals contained within it. Gadolin called the first of these “ytterbite,” after the place it was discovered. Ytterby was officially on the map!

Chemists continuing Gadolin’s work uncovered that mineral’s oxide, which is called “yttria.” When Friedrich Wohler managed to distill the oxide down to its pure essence, it seemed natural that this new element should be called “yttrium.”7

That should mark the end of a pleasant little story of how a tiny little town came to be immortalized on the periodic table of elements.

But that is not the end. From that one brief moment in the spotlight, Ytterby went mad with power, and started to grab territory on the periodic table with the same fervor as Cortes colonizing the Americas.

To wit: In 1843, a chemist named Carl Mosander discovered two new elements hiding in a sample from Ytterby’s mines. Since element 39 already carried the town’s name as a moniker, Mosander could have called these new discoveries anything he wanted. He could have named them after a planet, or the mineral’s color, or characters from mythology. He could’ve named them after his mother and father and it would’ve made more sense than what he did.8

Mosander decided to name both of these elements after Ytterby. Sure, “yttrium” was already taken, but we can slice up this name plenty of ways. So that is how we wound up with terbium for element 65, and erbium for element 68. Three slots on the periodic table for one rinky-dink village has to be some kind of record, right?

Well, yes, it is, but just, hold on. We’re not done yet. Time passed. A few decades after that whole debacle, Swiss chemist Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac managed to shake loose yet another new chemical element from some of that Swedish dirt. When he reached for a name, he grabbed: Ytterbium.

So now we have four fundamental building blocks of the universe that are all named after the same tiny village that nobody even cared about in the first place.

To be fair, it does seem pretty remarkable that four new elements were discovered on this little Swedish island. But that has less to do with the island, and more to do with the elements being detected.9

You’ve probably noticed that the periods on our table are getting wider as we delve deeper. In period 4, that started when we reached the transition metals, and the effect will be even more pronounced when we come to the lanthanides in period 6 and the actinides in period 7.

We first investigated this phenomenon with scandium: these larger elements have a lot of extra space where they can stow their electrons, causing them act more like chemical siblings than strangers across the period.10

Since they act so similar, they tend to form under the same geological conditions. They travel as a pack, so to speak. Wherever you happen to find one rare earth element, it’s practically guaranteed that there are plenty of others in the neighborhood, too.11

And I do mean “plenty.” The chemical discoveries near Ytterby didn’t stop at four — in total, scientists found ten new elements packed inside Ytterby’s ores. And they just couldn’t help themselves.

After yttrium, ytterbium, terbium, and erbium, scientists basically ran out of ways to name new elements after Ytterby. So they did the next-best thing and zoomed out just a tiny bit. Element 67 took its name from Stockholm, capital of Sweden, and was christened “Holmium.” Element 69 got its name from Thule, Sweden’s name from myths and legends, so it’s known as “Thulium.” Sweden is also part of Scandinavia, so element 21 was dubbed “Scandium.” Finally, Marignac broke the streak by naming element 64 “gadolinium,” after the chemist Johann Gadolin — a man who hailed from Finland.12

Four elements explicitly named after the town and three more pretty close to the mark bring Ytterby’s final nomenclature score to seven, besting all other cities, countries, and continents on the periodic table. I find this to be pretty ironic, because the name “Ytterby” isn’t loaded with historical or aesthetic significance. Translated from Swedish, the name just means, “Outer Village.”


Yttrium has come a long way from that Swedish mine since its discovery. It wound up in millions of homes as a component of television sets, being responsible for the little sliver of red in every pixel on a cathode ray tube TV screen.13

You might have noticed that the small screen has made a lot of cameos in recent episodes. The sheer number and diversity of chemical ingredients required to make a TV help show that these devices are bafflingly complex, ongoing chemical reactions engineered to light up in precisely the right way to make us laugh and cry. It’s not something you think about too often, usually because whatever is playing on the TV tends to distract a viewer from such awestruck contemplation.

Yet yttrium has much more impressive tricks up its sleeve. In 1986, scientists discovered an yttrium compound that acts as a superconductor; that is, a material that conducts electricity with zero resistance.14 That might not sound like much, but it’s actually pretty neat — and might be the key to a revolution in electrical engineering.

Most materials, like copper wires, exhibit varying degrees of resistance. That just means that it can’t transmit a current perfectly, so the current becomes progressively weaker the farther it has to travel. It’s a real issue that electrical engineers frequently grapple with. For instance, over the distance between your local power plant and your home, around five percent of the energy getting delivered is lost as heat.15

It’s kind of like rolling a ball down the street: Friction between the ball and the ground will eventually bring the ball to a stop. That’s just common sense — and it’s why superconductors are so fascinating. To continue our example, it’s like if we paved the road with some miraculous material that had no friction. Our ball could just keep rolling forever, never running out of energy. If you built a closed electrical circuit out of superconducting material, it would theoretically allow a current to flow forever.

Exploiting this kind of loophole in the laws of physics allows for some pretty bizarre behavior. For instance, if you place a high-strength neodymium magnet a few inches above a superconductor, the magnet will stay put, levitating securely in place, blatantly defying gravity before your eyes.

It’s not just a neat trick. Engineers could use this effect to build generators and cables that are almost perfectly efficient.16 These could slash energy requirements around the globe, and make certain sci-fi fantasies a part of everyday life. Levitating trains and railguns and quantum computers all become more feasible when designed with superconductors.17

The catch, and you knew there must be a catch, is that the superconducting materials we’ve discovered only work at extremely cold temperatures. As soon as the material warms up beyond a specific threshold, called the “critical temperature,” its superconducting properties immediately flip off like a switch. Many of these materials have a critical temperature down around absolute zero. As we saw with rubidium, it’s very difficult to create such a frigid environment.

So it was quite a thrill in the late 1980s when researchers started to find what they called “high temperature superconductors,” especially a compound of yttrium barium copper oxide, called YBCO for short. Everything is relative, of course, so what a cryogenic physicist might call “high temperature” would still sound pretty chilly to you and me.18

Specifically, YBCO becomes a superconductor at any temperature below 93 degrees kelvin. That’s minus 180 in Celsius, or nearly 300 degrees below zero in Fahrenheit.19

That’s a big deal, because those are temperatures that can be accomplished by immersing a material in liquid nitrogen — a refrigerant that’s pretty easy to make, so it’s cheap. No longer would researchers need to acquire costly liquid helium to conduct these kinds of experiments.

Obviously, there’s still a wide gap between the temperature of liquid nitrogen and what any reasonable person would call room temperature, and no one has yet discovered that superconductor. But this kind of progress happens in fits and starts. It might be several decades before we find the room-temperature superconductor, if we ever find one at all. Or perhaps we’ll see the world’s first perfectly efficient quantum-computing zero-g train before the year is out. I’ll certainly be happy to publish an Element Update on episodic table dot com if I hear any news.


There’s another location that has a pretty strong association with yttrium, and it’s about as far from Sweden as you can get. It’s a place we first visited almost exactly half a century before the airing of this episode: On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. There was actually a third astronaut on that mission, Michael Collins. He rarely gets acknowledged, though, because he stayed in lunar orbit aboard the Command Service Module and never actually walked on the moon’s surface.

Don’t feel bad for him, though. Collins knew the deal when he signed up for the mission, and he didn’t feel short-changed. He explained in his autobiography,

I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have. This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two.”20

He’s absolutely right about that. Somebody had to stay in orbit to make sure the other two could catch their return flight home.21 Besides, while he didn’t have the most glamorous role on the mission, Collins had the exclusive privilege of traveling ’round to the dark side of the moon, spending forty-eight solid minutes completely cut off not just from his fellow astronauts, but the entire human population. During that window of time, Mission Control remarked, “Not since Adam has any human known such solitude as Mike Collins … when he’s behind the Moon with no one to talk to except his tape recorder.”22 For what it’s worth, he found that experience to be profound, not lonesome.23

Anyway, Neil and Buzz did more than just plant flags and bounce around while down on the lunar surface. Up till that point, any ideas scientists had about the moon were based on conclusions drawn from 380 thousand kilometers away. By actually going to the moon, the astronauts were able to conduct important scientific tests that provided the hard evidence some of those theories required.

Getting to the moon was the hard part. Once they got there, evidence collection was simply a matter of picking up some rocks and hauling them back to Earth for further analysis. One of the surprising things they found was that these moon rocks were chock full of yttrium.24

But there’s more to the lunar connection than that. Thanks to Apollo 11, scientists use yttrium to fuel a round trip to the moon that’s happened every day for the past fifty years.25

The astronauts didn’t only take samples from the moon. They also left some stuff behind. Kind of a lot of stuff, actually. Some of it is quite meaningful — for instance, a plaque that reads, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”26 Similar memorials bear messages of goodwill from world leaders, or commemorate those American and Soviet astronauts who died in the name of space exploration.27

But that’s not all they left behind. Remember, in space travel, every gram you bring on board your ship has a huge impact on the amount of fuel required. So among the 400,000 pounds of total material abandoned on the moon, there’s a hammer, a pair of tongs, a tripod, a couple pairs of moon boots… and around 96 separate bags of urine and feces.28

Some future moon archaeologist is going to have a much less noble impression of Neil Armstrong than we do today.

Sorry — we’re getting back to yttrium, I promise.

It wasn’t all tributes and trash. They also left behind scientific instruments that could be used in experiments that continued long after the astronauts returned to their home planet. One such apparatus is an array of finely tuned mirrors aimed back toward observers on Earth.

Those Earthlings are armed with a laser made of an yttrium aluminum garnet crystal, which fires high-powered pulses of near-infrared light toward the lunar mirror. This requires the same precision it would take to hit a nickel with a bullet fired from a rifle two miles away. The mirror reflects the beam back toward Earth, where it strikes a sensor and registers how long the round trip took with extreme precision. This highly sensitive arrangement of instruments can accurately measure the exact distance between the Earth and the Moon down to the millimeter.29

Scientists have used this measurement to deduce all sorts of information: That the moon has a fluid core, for instance, or that the island of Hawaii is drifting northwest at a rate of 70 millimeters per year.

Unfortunately for our element collections, high-powered pulse lasers are off-limits for most of us. Literal moon rocks tend to be similarly difficult to acquire. There was an intern at Johnson Space Center who managed to get his hands on one, but he was sentenced to eight years in federal prison for the stunt.30 They didn’t even let him keep the moon rock, either.

Yttrium is a lot more accessible as a component in its more mundane applications — things like spark plugs,31 or shock-resistant glass,32 or high-temperature furnace bricks.33 Those will do, I suppose, but they really pale in comparison to yttrium’s more high-flying achievements.

Perhaps the best place to source element 39 would be straight from Ytterby itself. No one will arrest you for that, and you can enjoy a lovely walk down the streets named after chemical elements. Stop for a moment to appreciate the decorative plaque commemorating all the elements found there. Make sure to pick up some samples of erbium, terbium, and ytterbium while you’re there, though — it would be awfully inefficient to have to make that trip four times.

Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To watch a video of our friend Thoisoi playing with a YBCO superconductor, visit episodic table dot com slash Y. That is, the letter Y, not the interrogative.

Next time, we’ll check out the real deal with zirconium.

Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you, wi nøt trei a høliday in Sweden this yër? See the løveli lakes, the wøndërful telephøne system, and mäni interesting furry animals.

Sources

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, Rare-Earth Element. Karl A. Gschneidner, Jr. Vitalij K. Pecharsky
  2. CNN, Mud Near This Small Japanese Island Could Change The Global Economy. AJ Willingham, April 17, 2018.
  3. NextShark, Japan Finds Over 700 Years Worth Of Rare-Earth Elements And Yttrium On Island. Ryan General, April 13, 2018.
  4. Stockholm University: The Baltic Eye, Ytterby Elements: Periodic Table History. Michelle McCrackin, May 7, 2017.
  5. Atlas Obscura, Ytterby Mine. Contributed by Alpha.
  6. University Of Melbourne: Scientific Scribbles, The Ytterby Elements. October 15, 2016.
  7. Chemicool, Yttrium Element Facts. Dr. Doug Stewart, October 18, 2012.
  8. In Your Element, Yttrium From Ytterby. Peter Dinér, 2016.
  9. Slate, Blogging The Periodic Table: Ytterby. Sam Kean, July 16, 2010.
  10. LibreTexts, Lanthanides: Properties And Reactions. June 5, 2019.
  11. Slate, Blogging The Periodic Table: Rare Earths. Sam Kean, July 15, 2010.
  12. Slate, Blogging The Periodic Table: Yttrium. Sam Kean, July 16, 2010.
  13. It’s Elemental, The Element Yttrium. Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility – Office of Science Education
  14. Encyclopedia Britannica, Superconductivity. Donald M. Ginsberg, Last updated February 13, 2018.
  15. U.S. Energy Information Administration, How Much Electricity Is Lost In Electricity Transmission And Distribution In The United States? January 9, 2019.
  16. Physics World, What Can Superconductivity Do For The Environment? Hamish Johnston, September 17, 2013.
  17. New Scientist, Superconductors: What They’re Good For. Stephen Blundell, November 2, 2011.
  18. Imperial College London, Yttrium Barium Copper Oxide – YBCO.
  19. Chemistry World, YBCO – Yttrium Barium Copper Oxide. Neil Withers, May 8, 2013.
  20. NASA, Statement From Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins. Bob Jacobs, July 15, 2009.
  21. NASA, The Rendezvous That Was Almost Missed. December 1992.
  22. NASA, Apollo 11 Mission Logs. July 21, 1969.
  23. NASA, Statement From Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins. Bob Jacobs, July 15, 2009.
  24. Apollo 11 Preliminary Science Report, p. 131.
  25. Space.com, Apollo 11 Experiment Still Going Strong After 40 Years. Brett Israel, July 24, 2009.
  26. Space.com, Apollo 11: First Men On The Moon. Nola Taylor Redd, May 9, 2019.
  27. Forbes, The Apollo 11 Astronauts Left A Lot Of Junk On The Moon. Kiona N. Smith, July 20, 2017.
  28. The Vintage News, Astronauts On Apollo Missions Left On The Moon Five U.S. Flags, Two Golf Balls, And A Startling Amount Of Refuse. E.L. Hamilton, April 14, 2018.
  29. Lunar Laser Range Finding: The Legacy Of Apollo And The Observatorie De La Cote d’Azur. Barry Davidoff.
  30. Deseret News, Moon Rock Thief Will Serve More Than 8 Years In Prison. Associated Press, October 30, 2003.
  31. PeriodicTable.com, Spark Plug: An Example Of The Element Yttrium. Theodore Gray.
  32. CRC Handbook Of Chemistry And Physics, 93rd Edition, p. 4-41. Edited by William B. Haynes.
  33. Applied Ceramics, High Temperature Furnace Bricks.

3 Replies to “39. Yttrium: It’s A Quiet Village”

  1. I absolutely love this podcast. Please keep making them. It is all so fascinating. Thank you so much for making them.

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