• FA-122492 © Technisches Museum Wien, Photo: Peter Sedlaczek
Collection Area
Production Technology
Chemical Production Engineering
1950 - 1959

Cerium oxide sample, 1958

Neodymium, praseodymium, lutetium, cerium: What sounds like a series of spells cast by a popular boy wizard is in fact a group of highly sought-after natural resources know as ‘rare earths’.

This group of metals has gradually been discovered since the mid-19th century. A pioneer of its early discovery and labelling was the Austrian chemist Karl Auer von Welsbach (1858-1929). He made use of his findings by putting them to industrial use. He patented a new type of luminary known as an Auer-Licht. The incandescent bodies woven out of cotton were impregnated with nitrates of thorium and cerium. To be able to manufacture these lamps himself, Auer acquired a chemical-pharmaceutical factory in Atzgersdorf near Vienna, where he processed minerals containing rare earths such as monazite sand from Brazil. Before its technological properties were recognised, this heavy sand had previously been used as ballast on many ships crossing the Atlantic. A total of some five billion Auer incandescent elements were made. The industrialist also developed ferrocerium for sparking lighters. To manufacture what became known in Europe as Auermetall he founded the chemical works in Treibach (Carinthia). The object depicted here comes from Treibach and contains 92 per cent pure neodymium. It came into the ownership of the Technisches Museum Wien in 1958.

Today neodymium is mined almost exclusively in China. As an alloy it is used in the manufacture of powerful magnets for MRI equipment, electric drives and lasers. The silvery-white praseodymium combines with magnesium to form an alloy used in the construction of aircraft engines. And in combination with cobalt and iron it is used in powerful magnets and to colour glass and enamel. Today cerium oxide is used in catalytic converters for cars as well as a grinding and polishing agent.

Manufacturer: Chemische Werke Treibach (Carinthia)

Date of origin: 1958

Inv.Nr. 16843/27
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