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What is Lanthanum?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Lanthanum is a metallic chemical element in the rare earth group on the periodic table. There are a number of commercial uses for lanthanum, ranging from lighting to medication for the treatment of kidney failure. Most consumers do not interact directly with this element, although they may own products with components made from lanthanum. It should be noted that although lanthanum is called a “rare earth” metal, it is not in fact rare at all, and it is fairly abundant on Earth.

In its pure form, lanthanum is extremely soft, and it has a silvery white color. The metal is so malleable that it can almost be worked by hand, and it can be easily cut through with a knife. Pure lanthanum is rather unusual in nature; this element is usually isolated from minerals or metallic compounds which have traces of lanthanum. The element is extremely reactive for a member of the rare earth group, and it is identified by the symbol La on the periodic table of elements. The atomic number of this element is 57, and some scientists classify it in the lanthanide group, preferring this technical term to “rare earth metals.”

The discovery of lanthanum is credited to Carl Mosander, who identified it in 1839. Almost 100 years later, another chemist successfully isolated the element. Later developments in chemistry allowed people to more easily extract lanthanum and other rare earth metals from compounds, making them more readily available. The name of the element is derived from the Greek lanthanein, which means “to lie hidden,” a reference to the difficulty that Mosander had in identifying the element.

Glass and optics manufacture use a great deal of lanthanum, and the element is also used as a hydrocarbon cracking catalyst in oil refineries. Commercial studio lighting may integrate lanthanum elements, and it is also used in superconductors and various metal alloys. In alloys, lanthanum softens a metal, making it easier to work and sometimes more durable as well. A number of other industries use lanthanum in things as diverse as microscopes and pool cleaners.

This element does not appear to play a vital biological role, although it may be mildly toxic. Studies on lanthanum exposure suggest that it could cause organ damage in large amounts. Medications which utilize lanthanum are approved for human use, but people should otherwise be careful when handling lanthanum, especially around substances which is may react with, like nitrogen, halogens, and sulfur.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon303459 — On Nov 14, 2012

What does it look like?

By anon296555 — On Oct 11, 2012

I have to look up a wanted poster at my school for lanthanum. How does it work? What's the modus operandi?

By anon296105 — On Oct 09, 2012

I have to look this element up for a wanted poster at school and this website was the most informational! Thanks for all your help with my "lanthanum" element.

By anon54963 — On Dec 03, 2009

does it have any rare properties that would be interesting to a high school? What does it combine with if it can to make a small explosion.

Dying to know! Thank you.

By anon43053 — On Aug 25, 2009

how much does a Lanthanum lens cost?

By anon25283 — On Jan 26, 2009

what does it combine with???

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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