Ytterbium: the essentials

Ytterbium has a bright silvery lustre, is soft, malleable, and quite ductile. While the element is fairly stable, it should be kept in closed containers to protect it from air and moisture. Ytterbium is readily attacked and dissolved by mineral acids and reacts slowly with water.

Table: basic information about and classifications of ytterbium.

Ytterbium: historical information

Ytterbium was discovered by Jean de Marignac at 1878 in Switzerland. Origin of name: named after the village of "Ytterby" near Vaxholm in Sweden.

In 1878 Marignac discovered a component, which he called ytterbia, in the earth then known as erbia. In 1907, Urbain separated ytterbia into two components, which he called neoytterbia and lutecia. The elements in these earths are now known as ytterbium and lutetium, respectively. These elements are identical with aldebaranium and cassiopeium, discovered independently and at about the same time by von Welsbach. The impure element was first prepared by Klemm and Bonner in 1937 who reduced ytterbium trichloride with potassium. Daane, Dennison, and Spedding prepared a purer form in 1953 from which the chemical and physical properties of the element could be determined.

Ytterbium: physical properties

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Ytterbium: orbital properties

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Isolation: ytterbium metal is available commercially so it is not normally necessary to make it in the laboratory, which is just as well as it is difficult to isolate as the pure metal. This is largely because of the way it is found in nature. The lanthanoids are found in nature in a number of minerals. The most important are xenotime, monazite, and bastnaesite. The first two are orthophosphate minerals LnPO4 (Ln deonotes a mixture of all the lanthanoids except promethium which is vanishingly rare) and the third is a fluoride carbonate LnCO3F. Lanthanoids with even atomic numbers are more common. The most comon lanthanoids in these minerals are, in order, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, and praseodymium. Monazite also contains thorium and ytrrium which makes handling difficult since thorium and its decomposition products are radioactive.

For many purposes it is not particularly necessary to separate the metals, but if separation into individual metals is required, the process is complex. Initially, the metals are extracted as salts from the ores by extraction with sulphuric acid (H2SO4), hydrochloric acid (HCl), and sodium hydroxide (NaOH). Modern purification techniques for these lanthanoid salt mixtures are ingenious and involve selective complexation techniques, solvent extractions, and ion exchange chromatography.

Pure ytterbium is available through the electrolysis of a mixture of molten YbCl3 and NaCl (or CaCl2) in a graphite cell which acts as cathode using graphite as anode. The other product is chlorine gas.

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ytterbium atomic number