What is Ytterbium?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2019
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Ytterbium is a metallic chemical element which is classified in the rare earth metals, also known as lanthanides. The element has several industrial uses, but it is relatively rare for individual consumers to interact with it directly. It occurs primarily in minerals like monazite, xenotime, and gaolinite, often in combination with other useful rare earth metals. These minerals are often found in Scandinavia.

When ytterbium is isolated, it is a bright silvery white color. The metal is extremely malleable, and it reacts weakly with water. The element also oxidizes rapidly when exposed to air; most people store it in airtight containers or suspended in mineral oil to prevent oxidation. The element is identified with the symbol Yb on the periodic table of elements, and it has an atomic number of 70. It is also allotropic, meaning that it can have different crystalline structures in the same form, like carbon. Three allotropic forms of ytterbium are known.

The discovery of ytterbium is usually credited to Jean de Marignac, a Swiss chemist who analyzed mineral samples from a Swedish mine near the town of Ytterby in the 19th century. Marginac identified several new elements in the Ytterby mine, including ytterbium, which he found in 1878. Later, chemists realized that he had identified an impure form of the element, and it was not truly isolated in 1953.


One of the most common uses of ytterbium is as a doping agent in lasers and semiconductors. The element is also used in metal alloys, and in portable x-ray devices. Some ytterbium isotopes generate gamma rays, which can be used to create a radiographic image of an object without the use of electricity. Ytterbium compounds such as ytterbium bromide are also used in a variety of industries.

The precise toxicity of this element is not known. It is most certainly a skin and eye irritant, and it should be handled carefully to avoid transferring traces to delicate mucus membranes of the body. The element has also been linked with birth defects, and it should not be ingested. Dust generated by cutting or processing ytterbium can be explosive, and it is also a potential lung irritant; face protection should be worn when working with ytterbium to avoid inhaling dust or fumes.


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