Lanthanum: the essentials

Lanthanum is silvery white, malleable, ductile, and soft enough to be cut with a knife. It is one of the most reactive of the rare-earth metals. It oxidises rapidly when exposed to air. Cold water attacks lanthanum slowly, and hot water attacks it much more rapidly. The metal reacts directly with elemental carbon, nitrogen, boron, selenium, silicon, phosphorus, sulphur, and with halogens. It is a component of, misch metal (used for making lighter flints).

This sample is from The Elements Collection, an attractive and safely packaged collection of the 92 naturally occurring elements that is available for sale.

Lanthanum: historical information

Lanthanum was discovered by Carl Gustaf Mosander in 1839 at Sweden. Origin of name: from the Greek word "lanthanein" meaning "to lie hidden".

Carl Gustav Mosander recognized the element lanthanum in impure cerium nitrate in 1839. His extraction resulted in the oxide lanthana (La2O3). A number of other lanthanides (rare-earths) were later discovered by identification of the impurities in yttrium and cerium compounds.

Lanthanum around us Read more »

Lanthanum has no biological role.

Lanthanum is never found in nature as the free element. Lanthanum is found in the ores monazite sand [(Ce, La, etc.)PO4] and bastn°site [(Ce, La, etc.)(CO3)F], ores containing small amounts of all the rare earth metals. Other ores include allanite. It is difficult to separate from other rare earth elements.

Abundances for lanthanum in a number of different environments. More abundance data »
Location ppb by weight ppb by atoms Links
Universe 2 0.02 Chemical elements abundance by weight in the universe on a miniature periodic table spark table
Crustal rocks 34000 5000 Chemical elements abundance by weight in the earth's crust on a miniature periodic table spark table
Human (no data) ppb by weight (no data) atoms relative to C = 1000000 Chemical elements abundance by weight in humans on a miniature periodic table spark table

Physical properties Read more »

Heat properties Read more »

Crystal structure Read more »

The solid state structure of lanthanum is: hcp (hexagonal close-packed).

Lanthanum: orbital properties Read more »

Lanthanum atoms have 57 electrons and the shell structure is The ground state electronic configuration of neutral Lanthanum is [Xe].5d1.6s2 and the term symbol of Lanthanum is 2D3/2.


Isolation: lanthanum metal is available commercially so it is not normally necessary to make it in the laboratory, which is just as well as it is difficult to separate it from as the pure metal. This is largely because of the way it is found in nature. The lanthanoids are found in nature in a number of minerals. The most important are xenotime, monazite, and bastnaesite. The first two are orthophosphate minerals LnPO4 (Ln deonotes a mixture of all the lanthanoids except promethium which is vanishingly rare) and the third is a fluoride carbonate LnCO3F. Lanthanoids with even atomic numbers are more common. The most comon lanthanoids in these minerals are, in order, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, and praseodymium. Monazite also contains thorium and ytrrium which makes handling difficult since thorium and its decomposition products are radioactive.

For many purposes it is not particularly necessary to separate the metals, but if separation into individual metals is required, the process is complex. Initially, the metals are extracted as salts from the ores by extraction with sulphuric acid (H2SO4), hydrochloric acid (HCl), and sodium hydroxide (NaOH). Modern purification techniques for these lanthanoid salt mixtures are ingenious and involve selective complexation techniques, solvent extractions, and ion exchange chromatography.

Pure lanthanum is available through the reduction of LaF3 with calcium metal.

2LaF3 + 3Ca → 2La + 3CaF2

This would work for the other calcium halides as well but the product CaF2 is easier to handle under the reaction conditions (heat to 50°C above the melting point of the element in an argon atmosphere). Excess calcium is removed from the reaction mixture under vacuum.

Lanthanum isotopes Read more »

The two isotopes of Lanthanum do not appear to have many applications. Only La-139 is used for the production of the medical radioisotope Ce-139.

Table. Stables isotopes of lanthanum.
Isotope Mass
(atom %)
spin (I)
moment (μ/μN)
138La 137.907105 (6) 0.090 (1) 5 3.7139
139La 138.906347 (5) 99.910 (1) 7/2 2.7832

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