The elements of the lanthanide series, from Ce (atomic number 58) to Yb (atomic number 70), form a group of chemically similar elements that have in common a partially filled 4f shell. These so-called “rare earth” (RE) elements usually take on a 3+ ionic state (RE3+). Because the 4f electronic-energy levels of each lanthanide ion are shielded from external fields by 5s2 and 5p6 outer-shell electrons, RE3+ energy levels are predominantly independent of their surroundings.
The characteristic energy levels of 4f electrons of the trivalent RE elements have been investigated in detail by Gerhard Heinrich Dieke and co-workers and were reported approximately 30 years ago. The Dieke diagram showing RE3+ energy levels is a familiar tool of scientists and engineers working with RE elements. However, the history of RE elements goes back to the year 1787 in the small Swedish town of Ytterby near Stockholm and to the gifted amateur mineralogist and military man Lt. Carl Axel Arrhenius. Arrhenius discovered an unusual black mineral in Ytterby (perceived initially as much rarer in occurrence and in concentration than the common ores or earths of aluminum, calcium, etc.). Many new elements were discovered by various chemists upon analysis of this black stone and others like it. The names given to these elements are variations of the location where the first discovery was made: yttrium, ytterbium, terbium, and erbium. The history of RE elements is fascinating and involves many other famous names in science: Berzelius, Gadolin, Bunsen.
The properties of these elements and their multifaceted applications to science and industry are equally fascinating and have remained important to this day. Commercial applications of RE elements began after World War II, when their available quantity and purity were greatly enhanced by improved separation techniques developed as a part of the Manhattan Project. Until fairly recently, the main industrial application of RE elements has been in permanent magnets. The unpaired 4f electrons result in some RE elements having the highest magnetic moments of any element. The development and applications of RE magnets are reviewed in a very interesting article by Livingston3 in a previous MRS Bulletin issue. In this issue of MRS Bulletin, we have taken as our aim to review some of the properties and applications of RE elements relevant to photonics.