Lithium is a chemical element with the symbol Li. It is not found in nature in its pure form but most commonly in igneous rock as well as lithium rich brine in salt lakes. It was first discovered in 1817 by Swedish chemist Johan August Arfwedson when he analysed petalite ore, but it took a number of scientists to work out how to extract this soft, grey-white, alkaline metal. Australia is the world’s leading producer of lithium, followed by Chile and Argentina.
Lithium is one of the least dense metals, it is lightweight and highly reactive to water and air. Consequently, it needs to be stored in an oil such as petroleum jelly to prevent violent, energy producing reactions. These properties make it a tricky, indeed potentially dangerous element to handle. It’s no coincidence that it is used in military technology for making thermonuclear weapons.
Top 5 everyday uses for lithium
- Batteries and electric vehicles – demand for lithium is growing exponentially as the world is turning to sources of renewable energy. Lithium is used in rechargeable batteries including mobile phones, digital cameras and battery packs for electric cars. It is also found in some non-rechargeable batteries such as those in pacemakers, toys and clocks.
- Manufacturing – when lithium is alloyed with aluminium and magnesium it adds strength but reduces weight. This is highly desirable in the manufacture of aircraft, whereby reducing weight makes for significant fuel savings. Bicycle frames, armour plating, and highspeed trains also utilise lithium alloys.
- Glass and ceramics – lithium is used widely in specialist glassware and ceramics, including windows and cookware such as ceramic hobs. Its thermal properties render it useful to many commercial applications where heat resilience and durability are needed.
- Lubricants – lithium stearate is a chemical compound commonly added as a thickener to oils to produce lubricants for a wide range of purposes, particularly where resistance to extreme temperature is needed.
- Medical – lithium is used to treat bipolar disorder and to help with mood stabilisation. Did you know that it was in fact an Australian doctor and psychiatrist, John Cade, who made this significant medical break though after the second world war? Some say his time as a prisoner of war led him to his work in mental health. He was truly a pioneer at time when mental health issues were poorly understood and medical treatment almost unheard of.
Whichever evolution theory you subscribe to, one thing is for certain and that is we could not live today without lithium and there will be a better tomorrow because of it. Its varied physical and chemical properties and its reactivity have applications that span an increasingly diverse range of industries. Automotive, power, electronics, defence, aerospace and health all depend on lithium as a key product ingredient. All power to them.