Yttrium Facts - Element Symbol Y or Number 39 (2024)

This entry was posted on January 7, 2024 by Anne Helmenstine (updated on February 11, 2024)

Yttrium is a chemical element with the symbol Y and atomic number 39. It is a silvery-metallic transition metal chemically similar to the lanthanides and has historically been classified as a rare-earth element.

Discovery, Naming, and Isolation

  • Discovery: Yttrium was discovered in 1794 by Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin in the mineral ytterbite (now known as gadolinite).
  • Naming: The element gets its names from the village of Ytterby in Sweden, where the mineral was found. The original element symbol was Yt, which was replaced by the symbol Y in the 1920s.
  • Isolation: Pure yttrium was first isolated in 1828 by Friedrich Wöhler. Wöhler obtained the pure element by reacting yttrium chloride with potassium.

Appearance and Properties

Yttrium is a soft, silver, crystalline metal. It is relatively stable in air, but it oxidizes in water and acids.

Element Group and Similarities to Lanthanides

Yttrium is a transition metal. Like scandium, which occurs above it on the periodic table, it is often included in the rare-earth metals group. It has similar chemical properties to the lanthanides due to its similar electron configuration.

Yttrium Isotopes

  • Natural Isotopes: The only stable isotope of yttrium is Y-89. This is the only isotope that occurs in nature.
  • Radioactive Isotopes: Yttrium has at least 32 radioactive isotopes, ranging in mass number from 76 to 108. To date, the least stable is Y-106, with a half-life around 150 nanoseconds. The most stable is Y-88, which has a half-life of 106.626 days. Y-90 is a radioisotope with use in cancer therapy.

Abundance and Sources

Yttrium is not found free in nature, but it is present in most rare-earth minerals and some uranium ores. The main sources are the minerals monazite, bastnäsite, and xenotime. The deep seabed contains a large reserve of yttrium and other rare-earth elements. The element abundance is around 31 ppm in the Earth’s crust, making it the 28th most abundant element. However, lunar rocks contain a higher abundance of the element.

Yttrium forms via nucleosynthesis in the s-process in red giants and r-process of supernovae. On Earth, its radioactive isotopes form from uranium fission.


The purification of yttrium typically involves solvent extraction and ion exchange techniques. As with the other rare earths, separating it from similar elements is a tedious process.

Uses of Yttrium

Yttrium shares many of the same uses as the other rare earths:

  • Electronics: Historically yttrium was used in red phosphors for color TV tubes. Now, it finds use in phone screens and camera lenses. It is a key element in white LEDs.
  • Ceramics: It increases the strength of aluminum and magnesium alloys. The element is a sintering additive in silicon nitride production. Some spark plugs use yttrium.
  • Chemistry: Yttrium compounds act as a catalyst for ethylene polymerization.
  • Medical: Y-90 is used in radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Superconductors: Yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO) is a high-temperature superconductor.
  • Garnets: Yttrium iron garnets are excellent microwave filters. Other yttrium garnets find use in lasers, diamond simulants, and acoustic transducers.

Oxidation States

Yttrium commonly exhibits a +3 oxidation state in its compounds. However, it also exists in the 0, +1, and +2 oxidation states.

Biological Role, Health Effects, and Toxicity

  • Biological Role: Yttrium has no known biological role. The adult body contains an average of 0.5 milligrams of the element. It occurs in higher concentration in cabbage and the seeds of woody plants.
  • Health Effects and Toxicity: In humans, yttrium concentrates in bones and also the live, lungs, spleen, and kidneys. Yttrium compounds can cause lung disease. The metal is a skin and eye irritant.

Key Yttrium Facts

Atomic Number39
Atomic Weight88.90584
Group3 (transition metal)
Electron Configuration[Kr] 4d¹ 5s²
Electrons Per Shell2, 8, 18, 9, 2
State at Room Temp.Solid
Melting Point1526 °C
Boiling Point2930 °C
Density4.472 g/cm³
Heat of Fusion11.42 kJ/mol
Heat of Vaporization363 kJ/mol
Molar Heat Capacity26.53 J/(mol·K)
Oxidation States+3 (main), +2, +1, 0
Ionization Energies1st: 600 kJ/mol
Atomic Radius180 pm
Covalent Radius190±7 pm
Crystal StructureHexagonal close-packed (hcp)
Thermal Conductivity17.2 W/(m·K)
Electrical Resistivity~600 nΩ·m at 20 °C
Shear Modulus25.6 GPa
Bulk Modulus41.2 GPa
Mohs Hardness~3
Magnetic OrderingParamagnetic

More Interesting Yttrium Facts

  • Cosmic Rarity: Yttrium is more abundant in the cosmos than on Earth. Its abundance in the solar system is much higher than its crustal abundance on Earth, making it a relatively rare element here.
  • Named After a Single Village: Yttrium is one of the elements named after Ytterby, a village in Sweden. Erbium, terbium, and ytterbium were also discovered in minerals from the same small village.
  • Color Television Pioneer: Yttrium played a critical role in the development of color television. Yttrium oxide was used to make the red phosphors in early color TV tubes.
  • Gemstone Component: Yttrium is a part of some gemstones, such as garnet. Yttrium aluminum garnet (YAG) is a diamond substitute.
  • Role in LED Technology: Yttrium is a component of white LEDs. It is part of the phosphor coating that converts the blue light of the LED into white light.
  • Medical Imaging: Yttrium-aluminum garnet (YAG) lasers are important for various medical imaging techniques, including in dental imaging.
  • Superconductor: Yttrium with barium, copper, and oxygen (YBa2Cu3O7) is a high-temperature superconductor.
  • Radiation Therapy: Yttrium compounds also hold promise for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes in nuclear medicine.
  • Materials: Yttrium enhances the strength and stability of glass and ceramics.


  • Dinér, Peter (2016). “Yttrium from Ytterby”. Nature Chemistry. 8 (2): 192. doi:10.1038/nchem.2442
  • Gadolin, Johan (1794). “Undersökning af en svart tung Stenart ifrån Ytterby Stenbrott i Roslagen”. Kongl. Vetenskaps Academiens Nya Handlingar. 15: 137–155.
  • Greenwood, N. N.; Earnshaw, A. (1997). Chemistry of the Elements (2nd ed.). Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-7506-3365-9.
  • MacDonald, N. S.; Nusbaum, R. E.; Alexander, G. V. (1952). “The Skeletal Deposition of Yttrium”. Journal of Biological Chemistry. 195 (2): 837–841. doi:10.1016/S0021-9258(18)55794-X
  • Weast, Robert (1984). CRC, Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. Boca Raton, Florida: Chemical Rubber Company Publishing. ISBN 0-8493-0464-4.
  • Wöhler, Friedrich (1828). “Ueber das Beryllium und Yttrium”. Annalen der Physik. 89 (8): 577–582. doi:10.1002/andp.18280890805

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Yttrium Facts - Element Symbol Y or Number 39 (2024)
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