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Learn All About Lithium


The lightest metal leading the green energy revolution.

What is Lithium?

The lightest known metal, lithium is the leading element of the alkali metals group. It is the least dense metal and the least dense solid element at room temperature. Lithium is a good conductor of heat and electricity, as well as a highly reactive element. It is soft enough to be cut with a kitchen knife and so low in density—roughly the same as pine wood—that it is one of only two metals that float on water. 

Lithium is found in igneous rock, with the largest concentrations in granites. Granitic pegmatites provide the greatest abundance of lithium-containing minerals, with spodumene, petalite, and lepidolite being the most commercially viable sources. Due to its solubility as an ion, lithium is also present in ocean water, salt lakes, and geothermal brines. In a process cheaper than mining and processing of lithium-bearing hard rock, brines are pumped to the surface where the lithium concentration is raised through solar evaporation in a system of ponds, a process that can take up to 18 months.

Brazilian naturalist and statesman Jozé Bonifácio de Andralda e Silva discovered the mineral petalite on the Swedish isle Utö in the 1790s. In 1817, Swedish chemist Johan August Arfwedson first succeeded in isolating one of lithium’s salts from petalite. Not until 1855 did British chemist Augustus Matthiessen and German chemist Robert Bunsen separate the lithium element by running a current through lithium chloride.

  • Because virtually all rocks contain trace amounts of the element, lithium got its name from lithos, the Greek word for “stone.”
  • Natural lithium is white to gray in color, but when thrown into fire it flares bright crimson. And like sodium, if you drop lithium into water it bursts into a red flame.
  • Lithium is one of only three elements (hydrogen and helium being the others) created when the universe formed but, according to the Big Bang Theory, the universe should hold three times as much lithium as can be accounted for in the oldest stars, a conundrum known as the Missing Lithium Problem.
  • The first major application of lithium was in high-temperature lithium greases for aircraft engines during World War II.

Where to Find Lithium

Uses for Lithium

Clean Energy Technologies The prevalent application of lithium is in rechargeable batteries for smartphones, laptops, digital cameras, and electric vehicles. Three properties make lithium ideal for this application: 1) it is highly reactive because it readily loses its outermost electron, making it easy to get current flowing through a battery; 2) its light weight (versus other metals such as lead) makes it more practical for small objects such as phones and in vehicles where range is a consideration; and, 3) because lithium ions and electrons move easily back into negative electrodes, lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable.
Lithium hydride is used as a means of storing hydrogen for use as a fuel. Lithium also assists in the perfection of silicon nano-welds in electronic components for electric batteries. Lithium niobate is used extensively in telecommunication products such as smartphones and optical modulators. Lithium fluoride forms the basic constituent of the fluoride salt mixture in liquid fluoride nuclear reactors.
Industrial Applications Lithium metal is made into alloys with aluminum and magnesium, improving their strength and making them lighter for aircraft, bicycle frames, and high-speed trains. Lithium hydroxide and lithium peroxide are used to purify the air and remove carbon dioxide in confined areas, such as aboard spacecraft and submarines. Lithium chloride is also used in air conditioning and industrial drying systems. It is used for specialized optics in infrared, ultraviolet, and vacuum ultraviolet applications. Alkyl lithium compounds are used as catalysts in the polymer industry. Lithium oxide is widely used to decrease the melting temperature of glass and for glazes used in ovenware. Lithium fluoride is used as an additive to aluminum smelters, reducing melting temperature and increasing electrical resistance. Lithium is used to manufacture all-purpose, high-temperature lubricating greases.
Fireworks A mixture of lithium, strontium, and other chemicals yields a brilliant red color.
Military Applications Lithium is used with magnesium in an alloy for armor plating. Metallic lithium and its complex hydrides are used as solid fuel and as high-energy additives to rocket propellants. Lithium hydride and deuteride serve as a fusion fuel in staged thermonuclear weapons.
Health Treatments Lithium salts were the first drugs approved by the FDA to treat mania and depression, and today the element helps stabilize the mood swings associated with bipolar disorder.

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