(Ytterby, village in Sweden) Marignac in 1878 discovered a new component, which he called ytterbia, in the earth then known as erbia. In 1907, Urbain separated ytterbia into two components, which he called neoytterbia and lutecia. The elements in these earths are now known as ytterbium and lutetium, respectively. These elements are identical with aldebaranium and cassiopeium, discovered independently and at about the same time by von Welsbach.
Ytterbium occurs along with other rare earths in a number of rare minerals. It is commercially recovered principally from monazite sand, which contains about 0.03%. Ion-exchange and solvent extraction techniques developed in recent years have greatly simplified the separation of the rare earths from one another.
The element was first prepared by Klemm and bonner in 1937 by reducing ytterbium trichloride with potassium. Their metal was mixed, however, with KCl. Daane, Dennison, and Spedding prepared a much purer from in 1953 from which the chemical and physical properties of the element could be determined.
Ytterbium has a bright silvery luster, is soft, malleable, and quite ductile. While the element is fairly stable, it should be kept in closed containers to protect it from air and moisture. Ytterbium is readily attacked and dissolved by dilute and concentrated mineral acids and reacts slowly with water. Ytterbium has three allotropic forms with transformation points at -13oC and 795oC. The beta form is a room-temperature, face-centered, cubic modification, while the high-temperature gamma form is a body-centered cubic form. Another body-centered cubic phase has recently been found to be stable at high pressures at room temperatures. The beta form ordinarily has metallic-type conductivity, but becomes a semiconductor when the pressure is increased about 16,000 atm. The electrical resistance increases tenfold as the pressure is increased to 39,000 atm and drops to about 10% of its standard temperature-pressure resistivity at a pressure of 40,000 atm. Natural ytterbium is a mixture of seven stable isotopes. Seven other unstable isotopes are known.
Ytterbium metal has possible use in improving the grain refinement, strength, and other mechanical properties of stainless steel. One isotope is reported to have been used as a radiation source substitute for a portable X-ray machine where electricity is unavailable. Few other uses have been found.
Ytterbium metal is commercially available with a purity of about 99+% for about $875/kg.
Ytterbium has a low acute toxic rating.