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.