A Different Element Story: “Neodymium” in The Strongest Permanent Magnet

From the grand challenges of 19th-century chemistry to humble, powerful technologies, Thornton and Burdett explain why neodymium was discovered twice by the two Carls as a twin element.

In 1838, the Swedish chemist Carl Mosander isolated a new element, lanthanum, a metal that had been hiding in cerium discovered by Berzelius since 1803. Two years later, Mosander discovered that there was another metal in cerium, and it was this component that gave his cerium samples a purple tint. He named the element “didymium,” derived from the Greek word for “twin.” Didymium shares many properties with lanthanum and appears to be fraternal twins from the same “zygotic” ore. After 1878, when people found that didymium from different regions had different visible spectra, they began to suspect that didymium might contain more than one element; however, the name didymium continued to exist in the periodic table for more than 40 years. It is the only element that is present in Mendeleev’s 1869 version of the periodic table but not in the modern version.

In the early 1880s, Austrian chemist Carl Auer von Welsbach isolated rare earth elements by repeated fractional crystallization. This method relies on the small solubility difference between the lanthanide ammonium dinitrate salts, which is tedious and time-consuming to operate. In 1885, Welsbach’s hard work paid off when he discovered a new element. He announced that didymium is actually a mixture of two elements, and he did not name only a few components as usual, but proudly proposed two new names. He named the minor component that produced the green salt compound “praseodymium” and renamed the major component “neodymium”.

Before this time, no other generally recognized element was renamed because of the isolation of another new element. However, none of the contemporary chemists questioned this hegemony; also, Mosander died in 1858, so there was no chance to fight for didymium. However, it has been suggested in recent years that Welsbach was somewhat pretentious because he isolated only one new element from didymium, and that one of the elements should be named “didymium”. While Welsbach was not the only one to use the “neo-” prefix in the late 19th century rare earth element search, only his new names survived (many other element discoveries are all wrong).

Neodymium in The Strongest Permanent Magnet

Neodymium in The Strongest Permanent Magnet

Welsbach is considered a master of commercializing research discoveries, but the difficulty of isolating rare earth elements has made it difficult for him to make a name for himself in this field. These elements are often found together because even Mother Nature finds them difficult to separate. Neodymium is the second most abundant rare-earth element in Earth’s crust after cerium, and is even more common than many of the more familiar elements, such as lead and tin. In monazite and bastnaesite, the content of neodymium is as much as 12-16%.

The main application of neodymium in the 19th century was cerium-lanthanum rare earth alloys, which contained small amounts of neodymium and praseodymium. Cerium-lanthanum rare earth alloy is a component of iron-cerium alkaloid, which is often used as flint for lighters. The next major application after this is glass tinting. Neodymium oxide is fused into the glass, which develops various hues from warm pink to blue depending on the ambient light source. In the field of lasers, neodymium-doped glass laser media are very important in high-power applications, such as laser fusion research.

The most powerful permanent magnets known are made of neodymium iron boron (Nd2Fe14B) alloy. Since their invention by industry in 1982, these magnets have become commonplace components in speakers, headphones, hard drives, high-performance motors and generators, and even ultra-strong refrigerator magnets. Their ubiquity belies their uniqueness: no other permanent magnet comes close to the performance of NdFeB. Neodymium Element Story

The supply of neodymium has received increasing attention in recent years due to its use in modern technologies. Neodymium in consumer products is generally not recycled due to the lack of industrially viable recycling methods and the low levels of neodymium in individual products. Also, some applications of neodymium (such as ferrite flint, pyrotechnics, and phosphors) are rather diffuse. The small and powerful NdFeB magnets readily available in discarded electronic waste have given rise to some creative recycling methods, such as using them to build chemistry teaching equipment in schools . Neodymium Element Story

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