(Ytterby, a village in Sweden near Vauxholm) Yttria, which is an earth containing yttrium, was discovered by Gadolin in 1794. Ytterby is the site of a quarry which yielded many unusual minerals containing rare earths and other elements. This small town, near Stockholm, bears the honor of giving names to erbium, terbium, and ytterbium as well as yttrium.
In 1843 Mosander showed that yttira could be resolved into the oxides (or earths) of three elements. The name yttria was reserved for the most basic one; the others were named erbia and terbia.
Yttrium occurs in nearly all of the rare-earth minerals. Analysis of lunar rock samples obtained during the Apollo missions show a relatively high yttrium content.
It is recovered commercially from monazite sand, which contains about 3%, and from bastnasite, which contains about 0.2%. Wohler obtained the impure element in 1828 by reduction of the anhydrous chloride with potassium. The metal is now produced commercially by reduction of the fluoride with calcium metal. It can also be prepared by other techniques.
Yttrium has a silver-metallic luster and is relatively stable in air. Turnings of the metal, however, ignite in air if their temperature exceeds 400oC. Finely divided yttrium is very unstable in air.
Yttrium oxide is one of the most important compounds of yttrium and accounts for the largest use. It is widely used in making YVO4 europium, and Y2O3 europium phosphors to give the red color in color television tubes. Many hundreds of thousands of pounds are now used in this application.
Yttrium oxide also is used to produce yttrium-iron-garnets, which are very effective microwave filters.
Yttrium iron, aluminum, and gadolinium garnets, with formulas such as Y3Fe5O12 and Y3Al5O12, have interesting magnetic properties. Yttrium iron garnet is also exceptionally efficient as both a transmitter and transducer of acoustic energy. Yttrium aluminum garnet, with a hardness of 8.5, is also finding use as a gemstone (simulated diamond).
Small amounts of yttrium (0.1 to 0.2%) can be used to reduce the grain size in chromium, molybdenum, zirconium, and titanium, and to increase strength of aluminum and magnesium alloys.
Alloys with other useful properties can be obtained by using yttrium as an additive. The metal can be used as a deoxidizer for vanadium and other nonferrous metals. The metal has a low cross section for nuclear capture. 90Y, one of the isotopes of yttrium, exists in equilibrium with its parent 90Sr, a product of nuclear explosions. Yttrium has been considered for use as a nodulizer for producing nodular cast iron, in which the graphite forms compact nodules instead of the usual flakes. Such iron has increased ductility.
Yttrium is also finding application in laser systems and as a catalyst for ethylene polymerization.
It also has potential use in ceramic and glass formulas, as the oxide has a high melting point and imparts shock resistance and low expansion characteristics to glass.
Natural yttrium contains but one isotope, 89Y. Nineteen other unstable isotopes have been characterized.
Yttrium metal of 99.9% purity is commercially available at a cost of about $75/oz.