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Cerium is a malleable, soft, ductile, iron-grey metal, slightly harder than lead. It is very reactive: it tarnishes readily in the air, it oxidizes slowly in cold water and rapidly in hot water. It dissolves in acids. It can burn when heated or scratched with a knife.
The metal is used as a core for the carbon electrodes of arc lamps, for incandescent mantles for gas lighting. Cerium is used in aluminium and iron alloys, in stainless steel as a precipitation hardening agent, to make permanent magnets. Cerium oxide is part of the catalyst of catalytic converters used to clean up exhaust vehicles, it also catalyses the reduction of nitrogen oxides (NOx) to nitrogen gas. All new cars are now equipped with catalytic converter which consist in a ceramic or metal substrate, a coating of aluminium and cerium oxides and a layer of finely dispersed metal such as platinum or rhodium, which is the active surface.
Cerium sulphide (Ce2S3) is likely to replace cadmium in red pigments for containers, toys, household wares and crates, since cadmium is now considered environmentally undesirable.
Other uses of cerium are in flat-screen televisions, low-energy light bulbs and magnetic-optic compact discs, in chromium plating. The use of cerium is still growing, due to the fact that it is suited to produce catalysers and to polish glass.