Questions for ‘Rare earths’ hidden electrons make much of modern tech possible’  

a photo of a maglev train leaving a train station

The Shanghai Transrapid is a high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) train that travels at speeds up to 430 kilometers (270 miles) per hour. The magnets needed for such systems rely on rare-earth metals. Six railways currently offer high-speed, low-energy maglev service.

Christian Petersen-Clausen/Moment Open/Getty Images Plus

To accompany Rare earths’ hidden electrons make much of modern tech possible


Before Reading:

  1. The three major subatomic particles are protons, neutrons and electrons. Which two reside in the nucleus? Which one resides outside the nucleus? Illustrate the location of these particles with a sketch. Based on your sketch, do you think protons, neutrons or electrons are more likely to interact directly with neighboring atoms? Explain your answer.
  2. Pick 10 chemical elements and make a flashcard for each describing its properties and uses. Now find a partner and a periodic table of the elements. Take turns setting a one-minute timer and trying to guess the elements on each other’s cards. Give hints based on the element’s characteristics, applications or common substances. (Do not use letters, rhyme-based clues or numbers, including atomic numbers, in your hints.) Afterward, answer the following questions: What was one element that you found easy to guess? What was a telling clue for this element? What was one element that you found tricky to guess? If you were to play this game again, what would be a good clue for this element?

During Reading:

  1. How many elements are classified as rare earths? How many of those are also lanthanides? What is the range of atomic numbers for the lanthanides?
  2. What are two “outstanding capabilities” of rare-earth metals?
  3. Give two modern applications for rare-earth metals.
  4. What does it mean to be malleable? Besides malleability, list two other characteristics shared by rare-earth metals. Which structural part of rare earths provides their “secret power”?
  5. What are orbitals? What is the name for the orbitals farthest away from an atom’s nucleus? Where might one find f-electrons?
  6. What is the wavelength in nanometers of the light emitted by terbium? What color is this light?
  7. Give one example of a rare-earth metal that is useful thanks to the invisible light it gives off.
  8. What is ENIAC? What nickname did scientists give to ENIAC?
  9. How do neodymium’s “loner electrons” contribute to this element’s magnetic properties?
  10. What are NIB magnets? Describe one specific application for NIBs.
  11. What is one way that rare-earth metals contribute to green technology?
  12. What are quantum bits?

After Reading:

  1. What is one rare-earth metal found in something you use frequently? In what context do you use this rare earth? Over the next 10 years, will the value of this rare-earth metal likely increase, decrease or remain unchanged? Explain your answer. 
  2. Imagine a near-future world in which humans have depleted rare-earth metals. Then, one day, a rare-earth asteroid impacts the Earth, putting all rare-earth metals into the power of one family. Write a movie or book plot. Consider these questions while writing. What problems will this family face? What kind of power might this family suddenly wield over their neighbors and the rest of the world? How might this kind of power change the members of this family over time?