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What is Yttrium?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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Yttrium is a metallic chemical element which is often found in compounds with the rare earth metals. Subsequently, it is often grouped with these metals even though this classification is technically incorrect. There are a number of uses for yttrium, primarily in the form of alloys which are used in a wide variety of products from television screens to lamps. Most people are never exposed to pure yttrium, since the element is reactive enough that it almost always appears in the form of a compound.

The element is named for Ytterby, a Swedish town. The pure form of the element is silvery and highly crystalline in structure, and it combines readily with a number of other elements. It is identified by the atomic number 39 on the periodic table of elements, along with the symbol Y. In some cases, such as when it becomes oxidized, yttrium may acquire a reddish to pink tinge, and it is formally classified among the transition metals of the periodic table.

The element was first discovered in 1794 by Johann Gadolin, who was analyzing the rare earth ores from the Ytterby quarry. This quarry actually contained a number of unusual minerals, containing compounded forms of elements like erbium and terbium, which are also named after Ytterby. Yttrium was first successfully isolated in 1828 by Friedrich Wohler, a German chemist who worked on several elements in addition to yttrium.

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In metal refining, yttrium is used to remove impurities, since it is readily attracted to substances like hydrogen which may cause metal impurities. The element is also used in metal alloys and in the manufacture of some synthetic gemstones. In television manufacturing, yttrium is an important component of color tubes. Isotopes of yttrium also appear to hold potential promise as medical treatments, although researchers believe that further experimentation is needed.

In a pure form, yttrium is harmful. The element has been linked to cancer, and it can be associated with gases which cause respiratory problems. Face and airway protection should also be worn because the element can be reactive with air, especially when it is broken apart. Yttrium does not appear to play a biological role in the body, suggesting that it is not necessary for human health, even in trace amounts.

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