Lithium is one of the most useful elements known to man and counts as one of the most mysterious ones too. Learn more about this versatile element with these 40 Lithium facts.
Lithium gives its name to the lithium family of elements.
They also go by the name of alkali metals and include not just lithium, but also sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium. These elements also share the same physical characteristics between them. These include softness to the point that humans could cut them with a butter knife, as well as quickly reacting to water and oxygen in the air.
This means scientists never find them in pure form in nature, and only as salt compounds. And when scientists or chemical engineers refine these elements, they need storage in mineral oil to keep them pure. Out of the lithium family, sodium is the most common, while francium is the rarest. Lithium actually stands in the middle of the family when it comes to its rarity in nature.
Lithium has a surprising rarity across the universe.
As we previously mentioned, lithium counts as one of the first three elements that appeared in the universe. But compared to either helium or hydrogen, lithium rarely ever gets detected in space by astronomers. Oxygen, not lithium, counts as the third-most common element in the universe, with lithium not even among the top ten. Nuclear scientists think this results from the way stars fuse elements in their cores.
Specifically, hydrogen fuses with helium to produce lithium, only for the lithium to fuse with hydrogen right afterward to produce more helium. That said, while this means most stars rarely have lithium, the smallest stars, brown dwarfs actually have plenty of lithium. This comes from the fact they’re too small to fuse anything heavier than hydrogen with hydrogen, allowing any lithium formed to remain.
Lithium plays a role in the bodies of both plants and animals.
Plants and invertebrates tend to have more lithium in their bodies than vertebrates do, at around 3,000 ppb. In contrast, vertebrates max out their lithium content around 800 ppb, with only 400 ppb on average. Scientists still aren’t entirely sure how lithium works in plant and animal bodies. For one thing, it competes with calcium, potassium, and sodium in cellular processes.
They have also noted that lithium plays a role in a cell’s genetic and energy-production processes. It may even reverse aging in part, by lengthening the telomeres which limit how much a cell can replicate its DNA. However, the mystery isn’t about what lithium does in the body’s cells, but how it works.
Scientists have precautions when it comes to handling lithium.
Lithium’s reactivity makes it both a fire hazard, as well as a corrosive agent similar to acid. Pure lithium will cause chemical burns when handled with an unprotected hand, needing medical treatment in cases of prolonged exposure. Like sodium, lithium may also explode on contact with water, unsurprising considering both count as alkali metals. And even if it doesn’t explode, lithium exposure to water will produce poisonous gases.
Even impure lithium has its dangers, especially in dust form, which can damage the soft tissues of the nose and throat. Prolonged exposure to lithium dust may also cause fluid to build up in the lungs, resulting in the potentially-fatal condition of pulmonary edema.
Various countries around the world produce lithium.
Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile make up the world’s biggest lithium producers, thanks to having between them 75% of the world’s lithium reserves. This gained the three countries the nickname, “Lithium Triangle” for their dominance in the industry. However, Congo in Africa has recently emerged as a major competitor, with the discovery of rich and impurity-low lithium ores in 2017.
Development of the reserves has proceeded over the years, with the first commercial exports set to begin in 2023. Aside from the previously mentioned countries, both China and the USA also have large domestic lithium production of their own.
A simple way exists to refine the element.
That said, the difficulty increases depending on the feedstock, with brine as the easiest feedstock to refine lithium from. This comes from the fact that lithium already exists in salt form in brine, unlike in ores where lithium salts form part of silicate compounds. Brine simply needs to get evaporated in the sun, after which the salts get sifted according to their composition.
In contrast, lithium ores must receive chemical treatment to separate the lithium salt from the silicates and other compounds in the ores. Once lithium salt extraction finishes, it then gets mixed with potassium salt and subjected to electrical treatment. This process produces not just pure lithium, but also pure potassium and chloride.
The lithium industry has impacted the environment.
Open-pit mining remains the most efficient way to mine the ore, but this comes at the cost of scarring the landscape. It deprives animals in the area of the habitats they depend on to survive. The need to pump water to keep it from flooding the mine also contaminates natural bodies of water with heavy metals like antimony, arsenic, and magnesium.
In addition to contaminating the water, pumping also causes the local water table to drop. Calcium compounds, also called lime, prove a major byproduct of lithium mining. Depending on the other ores and deposits in the mine, other byproducts may include sulfuric acid and even uranium.
It has also raised human rights concerns.
This is evident in places where lithium deposits lie in areas with large indigenous populations. Argentina has particularly drawn criticism for failing to consult with indigenous peoples over developing their lithium deposits. Criticism has also noted that while Argentina has required mining companies to respect indigenous rights, the same companies enjoy various privileges. These include control of information sharing on the basis of protecting corporate interests.
The companies also generally have a free hand in dictating terms to indigenous peoples over land rights. Similar issues have developed in the USA, over the development of lithium deposits in Nevada. Accusations have also appeared accusing mining companies and land developers of enabling violence and even rape against indigenous peoples in Nevada.
Lithium-ion batteries make up the biggest use for the element.
Despite only becoming commonplace from the 2000s onward, NASA actually first developed lithium-ion batteries in the 1960s. At the time, however, production methods proved too complicated and expensive for mass production. Engineers further developed the batteries in the 1980s, however. This led to the simplification of the process and reduced costs, with Sony producing the first commercial lithium-ion batteries in 1991.
The development of lithium-ion batteries continues to this day, with the batteries becoming mainstream in the 2000s with the market boom of the smartphone industry at the time. For their development of the lithium-ion battery, engineers John Goodenough, Rachid Yazami, and Akira Yoshino received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019.
Lithium-ion batteries come in two forms.
What we usually call a lithium-ion battery has the proper name of a lithium-ion cell. These most usually come in a flattened or pouch-like shape, such as those used in cellphones and electronics of similar size. However, they also come in cylindrical forms, such as those used for laptops and other similar machines. Unlike flattened or pouch-shaped cells, cylindrical cells suffer from heat issues.
Aside from cells, there’s also the battery pack, which includes multiple cells operating at the same time. Portable external power sources for laptops and electronics make one example of a lithium-ion battery pack. Electric cars also use battery packs, which are usually equipped with built-in cooling systems and electrical safeties.
They have many different uses.
Most commonly, serving as power sources for smartphones and laptop computers. Many other electronic devices also use lithium-ion batteries, such as tablets, digital cameras, and camcorders. Rechargeable flashlights also commonly use lithium-ion batteries, and even e-cigarettes run on lithium-ion batteries. Brush cutters, drills, sanders, saw, and trimmers are all cordless tools that can be powered by lithium-ion batteries.
In the aerospace sector, lithium-ion batteries are used as power sources for robots like the Curiosity Rover sent to Mars. Electrical engineers around the world today even experiment with the idea of using enormous lithium-ion batteries as emergency power reserves in case of blackouts.
They have fire and even explosive hazards.
The fire hazard comes from the fact that a lithium-ion battery has a flammable electrolyte. Normally, this isn’t much of a danger, but people should still be careful. Charging a lithium-ion battery quickly causes heat to build up, and the battery could explode even without external damage. Extreme cold also makes lithium-ion batteries unsafe, as it causes lithium to crystallize inside the battery.
The crystals could cause a short circuit, which, in turn, could cause the battery to explode. In 2013 alone, three different planes suffered fires while in the air because of overheated lithium-ion batteries. If not for the pilots’ skills, the planes could easily have crashed. Today, research continues to find a replacement electrolyte for safer lithium-ion batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries also have a safe disposal issue.
On one hand, lithium-ion batteries don’t leave behind toxic heavy metals after disposal like other rechargeable batteries. But this also means people have allowed used lithium-ion batteries to pile up in landfills. That, or they’re treated like other trash and simply burned in incinerators. While again, lithium-ion batteries don’t have toxic heavy metals that could get released into the atmosphere by burning, it still produces carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming.
Methods to recycle used batteries exist, involving taking them apart to remove the metal inside. However, this proves a complex and expensive process, costing on average $3 for every 1 kg. This, in turn, means that as of 2019, less than 5% of used lithium-ion batteries get recycled.
Lithium has various uses in industry.
The glass industry makes up the biggest consumer of lithium in the world. Specifically, in the form of lithium carbonate, from which they extract lithium oxide. Glassmakers add lithium oxide to sand, reducing the latter’s melting point, and making it easier to turn it into glass. Lithium fluoride also has a similar use in the aluminum industry, not only reducing aluminum’s melting point but also increasing the finished product’s electrical resistance.
The element also has a place in nanotechnology, used alongside silicon for welding together nanoscale electronic components. And simplest of all, firework makers also use lithium to add red coloring to their products’ explosions.
It also found a use in spacecraft.
For one thing, engineers use lithium-aluminum alloys for flexible and lightweight parts. Lithium may also alloy with other metals like cadmium, copper, and manganese, all of which have their uses in the space industry. Lithium-manganese alloys, in particular, have a reputation for lightness and strength. They also use lithium bromide and lithium chloride as engine desiccants, to draw water from and keep it from contaminating fuel.
Lithium hydroxide and lithium peroxide also have uses in scrubbers aboard spacecraft. These salts react with any carbon dioxide in the air, converting it into lithium carbonate and oxygen. The former gets stored as waste, while the oxygen returns to the spacecraft’s atmosphere.
The military also has various uses for lithium.
They commonly add lithium hydride to increase the heat and power of missile fuels, with some missiles outright just using lithium hydride as their fuel. Similarly, Mark 50 torpedoes use lithium metal as fuel with sulfur hexafluoride as an oxidizer. When launched, the torpedo’s engine sprays sulfur hexafluoride over the lithium metal.
The reaction produces hot gas that the engine uses to turn its propeller and drive the torpedo through the water. By far, however, the most infamous use of lithium in the military involves nuclear weapons. Specifically, lithium hydride serves as a fuel source in hydrogen bombs, capable of explosions comparable to millions of tons of TNT.
The US nuclear industry currently faces a lithium shortage.
American nuclear reactors work by using pressurized water as a coolant for their nuclear cores. However, the coolant also includes boric acid as a way to limit a nuclear core’s activity, helping it operate safely. That said, boric acid also damages the metal parts inside a nuclear reactor, on top of water causing iron to rust. This led the industry to coat metal parts with lithium, which counters the effects of boric acid.
The coating wears away with time, requiring regular replacement with every maintenance cycle. The USA scaled down its lithium infrastructure in the 1960s, as part of the anti-nuclear movement at the time. As of 2013, the US government has warned that 65 out of 100 American nuclear reactors face increased risk from operating on limited lithium supplies.
Lithium salts have medicinal properties.
In fact, lithium salts count as one of the most common psychiatric medicines in the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) has even listed it as an essential medicine, and it even enjoys a generic status in many countries. In particular, doctors use lithium salts to treat patients who suffer from bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. Against bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, lithium salts get prescribed after antidepressants fail to make an effect.
Against depression, lithium salts get prescribed as augmentation agents to improve the effectiveness of antidepressants. Medical studies actually show that 95% of patients with suicidal tendencies lose them after taking lithium salts. That said, how lithium salts actually do this remains one of the biggest mysteries in medical science today.
It does have potential side effects, however.
The most common side effects include increased urination, thirst, and even periodic hand tremors. The hypothyroid disease has also developed as an effect of using lithium salts long-term, thus needing patients to take thyroxine as a preventive measure. Overdosing on lithium salts can also cause lithium poisoning, which can result in kidney damage.
Some studies even suggest that lithium salts could cause a patient to develop diabetes, but this remains contested in the medical community. Doctors also avoid prescribing lithium salts to pregnant women, as well as those who recently gave birth. This comes from the fact that lithium salts have mild teratogenic properties that could cause birth defects or injure newborn children.
The popular soft drink 7 Up once had lithium salts as part of its recipe.
You could even compare it to Coca-Cola actually including cocaine in its recipe once. Originally called Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda, it advertised its inclusion of lithium citrate as a medicinal additive. Launched just weeks before the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the drink not only survived the Great Depression but boomed.
Ironically, its long name proved the biggest obstacle to its success, leading to its renaming as 7 Up in 1936. Lithium citrate stayed as part of the recipe until 1948 when the U.S. government forced American beverage makers to remove all lithium from their recipes. However, 7 Up continued to advertise its use of lithium citrate until 1950.