rare earth elements
These rare-earth oxides are used as tracers to determine which parts of a watershed are eroding. Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium and gadolinium. By Peggy Greb, US department of agriculture.Materialscientist at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Rare earth elements are a necessity in our world, but unfortunately, they are living up to their name by becoming rarer each day. These precious metals are in objects we use daily, like cell phones, TVs, computers and cars. However, these finite resources are both difficult and costly to extract from the earth.

With rising costs, and China tightening its grip on its majority control of the metals, it is scary to think that if we do not find a way to recycle and reuse rare earths, they will disappear. Learn more with this breakdown of the 17 rare earth elements. 1. Cerium Cerium helps reduce carbon monoxide emissions, and is therefore found in catalytic converters. It is also used in self-cleaning ovens, glass polishers, cigarette lighters and carbon arc lighting. 2. Dysprosium Dysprosium is found in lasers and high-intensity lighting, and it is used to raise the intensity of high-powered magnets like those in hybrid cars. 3. Erbium Erbium is used as a photographic filter and signal amplifier in fiber optic cables. It is also used to color glass and porcelain in sunglasses and jewelry. 4. Europium Europium has few commercial applications, but it is used for red phosphor in TVs, computer monitors, fluorescent lamps and some lasers. 5. Gadolinium Most commonly found in MRI machines, gadolinium is beneficial to the utility of iron, chromium and others. 6. Holmium With the highest magnetic strength of any element, holmium is used in magnets and nuclear control rods. It can also be used to color cubic zirconia and other types of glass. 7. Lanthanum Lanthanum is used for carbon arc lamps that are found in studio and projector lights. It is also found in batteries, cigarette lighter flints and camera lenses. 8. Lutetium Lutetium has specialty uses, i.e., calculating meteorite age, PET scans and “cracking” oil refinery petroleum products. 9. Neodymium This element is known for neodymium magnets found in computer disks, wind turbines, hybrid cars, earbuds and microphones. Neodymium can even be applied to color glass for lighter flints and welder’s goggles. 10. Praseodymium Praseodymium is found in aircraft engines and welder’s goggles and is used as a signal amplifier in fiber-optic cables. 11. Promethium Promethium is artificially produced with uranium fission, meaning it is not found on earth naturally. The finished product is used in luminous paints and nuclear-powered batteries. It has strong potential to be used in portable X-ray machines. 12. Samarium After combining with cobalt, samarium creates a permanent magnet with the “highest demagnetization resistance of any known material.” It can also be found in carbon arc lamps, lighter flints and glass, and it is crucial for so-called “smart” missiles. 13. Scandium Scandium is used to strengthen metals like aluminum for commercial uses like aerospace parts, baseball bats and bicycle frames, and even helps to create “sunlight” in mercury vapor lamps. 14. Terbium Terbium produces laser lights and green phosphors in TV tubes, but it can also help create sonar technology and small electronic sensors. 15. Thulium Considered the rarest of all rare earth elements, thulium contributes to few commercial products. It can be found in surgical lasers and used in portable X-ray devices, but only after being exposed to radiation. 16. Ytterbium Ytterbium is used in stress gauges for earthquakes and lasers and is found in some portable X-ray machines. It has very small limited usage. 17. Yttrium This element has many uses, like conducting microwave energy, simulating diamond gemstones and strengthening glass, ceramic, aluminum alloys and magnesium alloys. It is responsible for color in TV picture tubes. Most of the items listed above can be recycled, but remember to do research on large appliances and hazardous materials before taking them your local recycling center. To see which rare earth element application is recycled in your area, visit our recycling search engine.