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Lanthanide Metals: Definition, Properties, Uses, and Types

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
April 26, 2024
 16 min read
Mark Osterman, VP of Technical Sales and Pre-Sales Engineering
June 7, 2024
 3 min read

The lanthanides are a particularly important group of materials, constituting the f-block of the periodic table. They’re often referred to loosely as rare-earth metals. Lutetium is often included in the group, despite being a d-block transition metal, as it has common properties with the lanthanides. Thus there are either 14 or 15 members of the group, depending on definitions, with atomic numbers ranging from 57 to 71.

Key properties of lanthanides include: elevated melting points, unusual blends of magnetic properties, and remarkable luminescence that finds various scientific and industrial uses. These elements are exploited for purposes like: electronics, catalysis, and renewable energy technologies.

This article will discuss lanthanide metals to include their properties, uses, types, advantages, and disadvantages.

What Are Lanthanides Metals?

Lanthanides are a group of metals that have similar properties. Their characteristics have become critical to a surprising range of high-tech applications. Much of the commonality stems from the lanthanide elements’ common electron configurations, resulting in shared chemical behaviors. Their high melting points, useful magnetic properties, and notable luminescence make them crucial across many technical sectors. They find applications in electronics, catalysis, and renewable-energy-related technologies.

What Are the Different Properties of Lanthanide Metals?

Lanthanides possess distinctive properties. Listed below are some of the most significant: 

1. High Melting Points

Lanthanides exhibit notably high melting points, ranging from around 700 °C for cerium to over 1900 °C for lutetium. This behavior stems from their unusually strong metallic bonds which require substantial energy input to overcome. The melting points vary within the lanthanide series based on specific atomic size, electron configuration, and crystal structure. This makes lanthanides suitable for applications that must withstand high temperatures, such as in aerospace, nuclear reactors, and high-temperature manufacturing processes.

2. Metallic Conductivity

Most lanthanides exhibit relatively poor electrical conductivity compared to other metals. Their partially filled f-orbits hinder the free mobility of electrons. However, the conductivity of cerium and europium can be tuned under certain conditions, such as in specific atomic lattice structures or the presence of dopant impurities. This variability in conductivity across the series makes them valuable for specialized applications in electronics, magnetic devices, and lighting technologies.

3. Stable +3 Oxidation State

The stable +3 oxidation state is a generalized feature of the group resulting from the covalent satisfaction of their 4f orbitals. The +3 oxidation state arises due to the loss of three valence electrons, resulting in a very stable electron orbit configuration. This stability makes lanthanides valuable as organic reaction catalysts, it facilitates fluorescence in some electric lights, and it is related to the ferromagnetic behavior of neodymium and samarium. 

4. Lanthanide Contraction Influences Atomic Sizes

“Lanthanide contraction” is a phenomenon that dictates the atomic sizes of elements in the series. Electrons in the 4f orbital shield the nuclear charge less than other orbitals. It causes the overall atom to be more compact than you might otherwise expect based on trends within the periodic table. Despite the addition of more electrons as the atomic number increases, the increasing nuclear charge pulls the outer electrons closer to the nucleus. This phenomenon greatly affects lanthanide elements’ reactivity, coordination chemistry, and bonding behavior.

5. Uniform Atomic Radii

Contrary to the typical trend of atomic radii increasing as the atomic number rises, lanthanides exhibit nearly uniform atomic radii across the whole group. This occurs as a direct result of the filling of 4f orbitals, which have poor shielding effects. The consequence of this is that their atomic size barely increases across the series. This effect is distinct from all other elements on the periodic table. 

6. Varied Magnetic Properties

The unusual electron configurations of lanthanides make for a wide-ranging set of magnetic properties. Gadolinium exhibits strong paramagnetism, while cerium and praseodymium possess weak paramagnetism. On the other hand, dysprosium and neodymium display strong ferromagnetic behavior, particularly at low temperatures. These variations stem from the complex interactions between the electron spin configurations of lanthanide atoms. The range of behaviors means lanthanide materials get used for many different purposes in devices like magnetic storage devices and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems.

7. Luminescence in Europium and Terbium

Europium and terbium are particularly important for their luminescent properties, in the form of phosphors. Europium emits red luminescence, while terbium emits green — both when excited by ultraviolet light. These elements are extensively utilized in applications such as: fluorescent lamps, cathode ray tubes, and television screens. Their luminescent properties enable efficient lighting devices. Additionally, they are crucial components in the production of luminescent materials for use in security features, optical devices, and biomedical imaging.

8. Diverse Applications Due to Unique Electronic Configurations

The many uses for lanthanides stem from their unique electronic configurations, which equip them with a wide range of behaviors and properties. Lanthanides’ partially filled f-orbitals allow for complex interactions with electromagnetic fields and ligands. This characteristic leads to their utilization in fields such as: magnets used for data storage and electric motors, phosphors for fluorescent lamps, LEDs, CRT screens, catalysts in numerous chemical reactions, and MRI scans. 

What Are the Distinctive Chemical Properties That Characterize Lanthanide Metals?

The distinctive chemical properties of lanthanide metals include:

  1. They all have related outer electron configurations. This results in generally comparable chemical behaviors.
  2. They tend to form coordination compounds (useful for dies, pigments, and catalysts) with high coordination numbers. This is due to the elevated availability of their valence f-electrons for bonding and high affinity for ligands.
  3. They commonly exhibit stable +3 oxidation states, resulting in the formation of trivalent compounds.
  4. Many lanthanides are paramagnetic, meaning they are weakly attracted to magnetic fields due to the magnetically polarizing effect of their unpaired electrons.

Are Lanthanides Often Found in Low Concentrations in the Earth's Crust?

Yes, lanthanides are typically found in relatively low concentrations, though they’re more widely distributed in the Earth's crust than many other elements. Despite falling into the category known as rare-earth elements, they are not particularly rare. However, their wide dispersal and generally low concentrations make their extraction and purification challenging and costly. Large volumes of low-grade ore must be processed to acquire reasonable amounts of the elements. Lanthanides are primarily obtained from rare-earth mineral ores, which require extensive processing to isolate the sought-after elements.

What Is the Use of Lanthanides Metals?

Lanthanide metals find diverse applications due to their unique mix of properties. Some examples are:

  1. They serve as catalysts in a wide range of industrially important chemical reactions, enhancing reaction rates and selectivity in high-value processes.
  2. These metals, particularly neodymium and samarium, are critical in the production of high-strength permanent magnets used in motors, generators, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. 
  3. Lanthanides form phosphors that are useful in fluorescent lamps, LEDs, and various other lighting applications. They produce specific colors more efficiently than other materials. This includes the neodymium in NdYAG lasers.
  4. They are added to glass and ceramic materials to improve both transparency and strength. They can also improve IR absorption and alkali resistance. 
  5. Some lanthanide isotopes are used in nuclear reactors for neutron capture and shielding purposes, absorbing larger numbers of neutrons per unit area than most other potential shield materials.
  6. Lanthanides are utilized in electronics, including: lasers, semiconductors, and superconductors, to enhance performance and efficiency in both electrical and optical emission characteristics.

What Industry Uses Lanthanides Metals?

Some industries that use lanthanide metals are:

  1. Electronics
  2. Automotive
  3. Catalysis
  4. Lighting
  5. Renewable energy
  6. Glass and ceramics
  7. Aerospace
  8. Defense
  9. Medical devices
  10. Telecommunications

Can Lanthanides and Ferrous Metals Serve the Same Industrial Purposes?

Yes, both lanthanides and ferrous metals show up in thousands of processes and products. There is nearly zero overlap in applications, however. The only area in which there is some degree of interchangeability between the two groups is in advanced magnetic applications, where some lanthanides’ magnetic properties can complement those of ferrous metals.

What Are the Different Types of Lanthanide Metals?

The different types of lanthanide metals are listed and discussed below:

1. Cerium (Ce)

Cerium is a chemical element with the symbol Ce and atomic number 58. It is a soft, silvery metal and is the most abundant of the rare-earth elements. Cerium is widely used in catalytic converters, glass manufacturing, and as a polishing agent in various industries.

2. Europium (Eu)

Europium is a chemical element with the symbol Eu and atomic number 63. It is a rare-earth metal with a silvery-white appearance. Europium is notable for its ability to emit red fluorescence under certain conditions, making it a useful phosphor for fluorescent lamps and television screens, as well as in security features for banknotes.

3. Neodymium (Nd)

Neodymium is a chemical element with the symbol Nd and atomic number 60. It is a rare-earth metal that is commonly used in powerful permanent magnets, particularly in applications such as: electric motors, headphones, speakers, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Neodymium magnets are known for their exceptional strength and stability.

4. Ytterbium (Yb)

Ytterbium, with the symbol Yb and atomic number 70, is a rare-earth metal used in various applications, including: laser technology, atomic clocks, and medical imaging. Its unique properties, such as its ability to absorb and emit light, make it valuable in telecommunications, research, and industrial processes. Ytterbium compounds also have potential pharmaceutical applications.

5. Terbium (Tb)

Terbium — symbol Tb and atomic number 65 — is a rare-earth metal used in green phosphors for CRT screens and energy-efficient fluorescent lamps. It's also utilized in solid-state devices, lasers, and nuclear reactors. Terbium compounds have applications in magneto-optical recording, sensors, and as dopants in materials for electronic devices.

6. Praseodymium (Pr)

Praseodymium — symbol Pr and atomic number 59 — is a rare-earth metal used in high-strength magnets — particularly in hybrid vehicle motors and wind turbines. It's also employed in carbon arc lighting, as a component in rare-earth alloys for improved strength, and in certain types of glass for optical filters.

7. Dysprosium (Dy)

Dysprosium, with the symbol Dy and atomic number 66, is a rare-earth element used in permanent magnets for electric vehicles and wind turbines due to its high magnetic strength and stability at high temperatures. It's also used in nuclear reactor control rods, lighting applications, and as a component in certain alloys.

8. Gadolinium (Gd)

Gadolinium is a rare-earth element withthe symbol Gd and atomic number 64. Its unique magnetic properties make it valuable in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) contrast agents. Additionally, gadolinium is used in electronics and as a neutron absorber in nuclear power plants for controlling the rate of fission reactions.

9. Erbium (Er)

Erbium — symbol Er and atomic number 68 — is a lanthanide metal primarily used in optical fiber amplifiers for telecommunications. Its ability to efficiently amplify light signals in optical communication systems is crucial for long-distance transmission. Erbium-doped fiber amplifiers (EDFAs) are vital components in modern telecommunications networks, enhancing signal strength in fiber-optic communication systems.

10. Holmium (Ho)

Holmium — symbol Ho and atomic number 67 — is a lanthanide metal that’s used in nuclear control rods due to its high neutron-absorbing capacity. Additionally, holmium finds use in medical lasers for surgical procedures and as a component in certain magnetic alloys for electronic devices.

11. Lutetium (Lu)

Lutetium — symbol Lu and atomic number 71 — is the heaviest member of the lanthanide series. It's utilized in various applications, including medical imaging and cancer therapy due to its ability to emit gamma rays. Lutetium compounds are also employed in catalysts and as dopants in phosphors for LED lighting and displays.

12. Promethium (Pm)

Promethium, with atomic number 61 and symbol Pm, is the only lanthanide without stable isotopes. Due to its radioactivity, it finds niche applications in nuclear batteries, thickness measurement devices, and luminous paint. However, its scarcity and radioactivity limit widespread use, relegating it primarily to specialized fields like aerospace and military applications.

13. Samarium (Sm)

Samarium has the atomic number 62 and symbol Sm. Its compounds are employed in magnets, lasers, and nuclear reactors. Samarium-cobalt magnets are notable for their high magnetic strength and resistance to demagnetization, making them valuable in the aerospace, automotive, and electronics industries. Additionally, samarium is used in cancer treatment and as a neutron absorber in nuclear reactors.

14. Thulium (Tm)

Thulium — atomic number 69 and symbol Tm — is a lanthanide metal used primarily in research and specialized applications. Its compounds are employed in laser systems for medical and industrial purposes, such as medical imaging and material processing. Thulium-doped fibers are also used to amplify optical signals in long-distance communication networks.

15. Lanthanum

Lanthanum is a soft, silvery-white metallic element of atomic number 57 and the periodic table symbol La. It belongs to the lanthanide series of the periodic table and is one of the rare earth elements. Lanthanum has various industrial applications, including rechargeable batteries, catalysts, and optical spectrum lenses as a minor component (along with others) that improves optical clarity.

How To Choose Which Type of Lanthanides Metals To Use

The proper type of lanthanide for an application depends heavily on the project’s specific requirements. Some typical steps to follow are:

  1. Assess and understand the characteristic properties of each lanthanide element, such as: melting point, density, reactivity, and magnetic behavior, to determine which fits best with your application's demands.
  2. Consider the availability and cost-effectiveness of the lanthanide metal. Some are considerably more affordable than others which may rule out otherwise attractive options.
  3. Consider the chosen material's environmental impact, including extraction, processing, and disposal, to minimize the overall environmental footprint.
  4. Ensure compatibility with other materials and components used in the application to avoid adverse reactions or secondary issues affecting performance.
  5. Verify compliance with any relevant regulations and standards governing the use of lanthanide metal.

What Type of Lanthanides Metals Are Used for Magnets?

Neodymium and samarium are the two lanthanides used in high-strength, rare-earth magnets. While neodymium magnets are stronger, they corrode very easily, so their uses are limited. Samarium-cobalt magnets have 30% lower magnetic strength than neodymium types, but they are highly corrosion-resistant and offer better high-temperature performance. 

What Type of Lanthanides Metals Are Used for LED Lighting?

Lanthanum, cerium, terbium, and europium are widely employed in LEDs.  Cerium and terbium are additionally exploited as phosphors that enhance color rendering and brightness. Europium goes into red phosphors, while lanthanum is used in blue and green sources. They can all efficiently convert electrical energy into visible light, putting them at the heart of LED lighting technology.

What Type of Lanthanides Metals Are Used for Catalysts for Petroleum Refining?

Cerium and lanthanum are commonly used as catalysts for petroleum refining. Cerium-based catalysts aid in various refining processes such as fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) and hydrocracking. Lanthanum-based catalysts are also utilized in FCC units to improve the selectivity and efficiency of the cracking reactions. They serve pivotal roles in the production of high-quality fuels and petrochemicals through these catalytic processes.

What Is the Advantage of Using Lanthanide Metals?

The specific advantages of lanthanide use depend on the purpose and the particular element. As a general rule, lanthanides possess unique electronic configurations that make them valuable in technological applications such as: electronics, optics, and catalysis. Secondly, their distinct chemical properties make many of them notable: luminescence, magnetism, and catalytic activity. Additionally, lanthanide metals are crucial components in the development of advanced materials and technologies due to their exceptional performance under extreme conditions. Moreover, the difficulty in sourcing and refining these elements highlights their importance as strategic resources, driving efforts to optimize their extraction, recycling, and utilization for sustainable development.

What Is the Disadvantage of Using Lanthanide Metals?

A major disadvantage of using lanthanides is their limited availability and complicated extraction. Recovering and refining these elements is expensive and creates significant pollution. Some lanthanides also exhibit toxicity risks if not properly handled, requiring careful management in manufacturing and disposal processes.

Do Transition Metals Also Have Magnetic Properties Like Lanthanide Metals?

Yes, many transition metals also exhibit magnetic properties, but these properties widely vary between elements based on their electronic configuration. Some transition metals, such as: iron, cobalt, and nickel, are well-known for their magnetic properties. Cobalt is used in cooperation with samarium in one type of high-strength magnet, while neodymium is paired with iron and boron for an even stronger one.

To learn more, see our full guide on the Properties of Transition Metals.

What Distinguishes Lanthanide Metals From Other Types of Metals?

Lanthanide metals are distinguished from other types of metals primarily by their electron configuration, which results in unique thermal, chemical, and magnetic properties. They belong to the f-block of the periodic table, so their 4f electron orbitals are not full. It gives them unique magnetic, luminescent, and other chemical properties. 

Additionally, lanthanides exhibit lanthanide contraction, wherein the atomic radii decrease as the atomic number rises within the series. This contraction influences their chemical behavior and contributes to their distinct characteristics, setting them apart from other metal groups.

Are Lanthanides the Same as Actinides?

No, lanthanides and actinides are two distinct groups of elements on the periodic table. Lanthanides form a subgroup within the f-block of the periodic table, from lanthanum (La) to lutetium (Lu). Actinides are also found in the f-block but are located below the lanthanides, from actinium (Ac) to lawrencium (Lr).

While lanthanides and actinides share some similarities in their electronic configurations and properties, they are distinct subgroups with a considerable diversity of characteristics and applications.

What Is the Difference Between Heavy Metals and Lanthanide Metals?

The primary differences between heavy metals and lanthanide metals are listed below:

  1. Heavy metals are characterized by high atomic weights and densities. Examples include: lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and chromium. Lanthanides specifically refer to the metallic elements in the lanthanide series of the periodic table, from lanthanum to lutetium.
  2. Heavy metals are distributed across various groups on the periodic table, primarily in the transition metals and post-transition metals. Lanthanides are solely located in the f-block of the periodic table. 
  3. Heavy metals are often toxic to living organisms, both in metallic and reaction byproduct forms. They tend to concentrate in fatty tissues (including the central nervous system) and have insidious long-term effects on health, cognitive ability, and life expectancy. Lanthanide metals were classically not considered toxic and remain common in various industrial, medical, and technological applications. A range of toxic effects are now suspected, however, and this is a matter of current research.


This article presented lanthanide metals, explained each of them, and discussed their various properties and applications. To learn more about lanthanide metals, contact a Xometry representative.

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Xomety X
Team Xometry
This article was written by various Xometry contributors. Xometry is a leading resource on manufacturing with CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, injection molding, urethane casting, and more.