Friday, August 23, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 39

It is 39 days to Opening Night of the 2013-2014 season, and that can only mean one thing in our countdown of the elements.  Take it away, Fearless…


Yttrium -- atomic number 39 -- is often described among chemists as being a “transition metal.”  It is also described as a “rare earth element.”  In fact, it is name for a village in Sweden – Ytterby – that is the site of a quarry where, in 1787, Carl Axel Arrhenius (whose day job was in the army, but who found time to practice a little chemistry) found a heavy black rock.  He thought it was an unknown mineral containing tungsten, itself only recently discovered.  He named the mineral “ytterbite.” Alas, “yttrium” would not be isolated in its elemental form until more than 40 years later.  Seems Arrhenius thought he had one thing, when in fact it was something else.

It is a soft, silver-metallic, lustrous and highly crystalline metal that is stable in air.  If finely divided, it can spontaneously ignite in the presence of very high temperatures.  Seems it needs some help to get fired up, so to speak.

Yttrium has a variety of uses.  In its oxide form it is used as a component of the phosphors used to produce the red color in television picture tubes. The oxides also have potential use in ceramics and glass. It can be used as part of materials to filter microwaves and as transmitters and transducers of acoustic energy. Yttrium is used as a catalyst in the polymerization of ethylene (we looked this up).

Let’s see… discovered in Sweden… a “transition” metal that can be used as a catalyst… shows up in red on television… described as soft, but stable… needs to be in the presence of something very hot to ignite… thought to be one thing, say, a center, when it turns out to be something else (maybe a left wing).

Aha!  Yttrium… the “Marcus Johansson” of chemical elements.

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