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Ytterbium is a soft, malleable and rather ductile element that exhibits a bright silvery lustre. A rare earth, the element is easily attacked and dissolved by mineral acids, slowly reacts with water, and oxidizes in air. The oxide forms a protective layer on the surface. Compounds of ytterbium are rare.
Ytterbium is sometimes associated with yttrium or other related elements and is used in certain steels. Its metal could be used to help improve the grain refinement, strength, and other mechanical properties of stainless steel. Some ytterbium alloys have been used in dentistry. One ytterbium isotope has been used as a radiation source substitute for a portable X-ray machine when electricity was not available. Like other rare-earth elements, it can be used to dope phosphors, or for ceramic capacitors and other electronic devices, and it can even act as an industrial catalyst.