What is Lithium?

To put it simply, Lithium is an element. This chemical element is known with the symbol “Li” and atomic number 3. Lithium in nature is never found alone, it is always bonded with another element. It can be found in trace amounts in essentially any rock, which is how it got its name. Lithium comes from the Greek word “Lithos” which means stone. Though this chemical element can simply be described, it is far from simple. Lithium is the lightest known metal and can be used anywhere from ion batteries, aircraft parts, in heat-resistant cookware and even in the pharmaceutical drugs.

The World of Lithium

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According to NASA Lithium was one of the only three elements created just mere minutes before the birth of the universes first stars. However, there is some controversy surrounding this fact. The Big Bang Theory suggests that if Lithium was one of the three elements created at the birth of our universe, there should be three times the amount their currently is. It has been discovered by astronomers that on the surface of newly formed stars and meteors, there is a relatively ample amount of Lithium and on these above mentioned stars and meteors, there is approximately four times the amount created during the Big Bang. Scientists today continue to study this phenomenon and are discovering new data about this “missing Lithium” on an ongoing basis.

Discovery and Applications

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JozéBonifácio de Andralda E Silva, discovered the mineral petalite, also known as castorite, on the remote island of Utö in the 1790’s. Petalite is a lithium aluminum phyllosilicate mineral which can appear anywhere from: colourless, grey, yellow and even white. In 1817, Chemist Johan August Arfvedson discovered that petalite contained a previously unknown element; he called this metal Lithium. He wasn’t able to isolate the metal by electrolysis as has previously been done in other salt compounds, but finally in 1955, two chemists named Augustus Matthiessen and Robert Bunsen experimented by running a current by electrolysis through molten Lithium Chloride which enabled them to separate the Lithium from the salt. Today there are several new techniques emerging to extract lithium from various hard rocks and clays in order to meet the demands worldwide.

1. Pharmaceuticals

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The historical use of Lithium began with its use in the pharmaceutical industry and it is still present in the medical world today. Lithium was originally used in the treatment of gout, bi-polar dissorder and depression. This treatment came about when it was discovered that Lithium Carbonate could dissolve urate stones. At the time, the thought that uric acid was an acute factor in many diseases made Lithium a seemingly obvious treatment.

In 1949 Dr. John Cades experimented with high doses of Lithium Citrate and Lithium carbonate in mania and discovered that Lithium stabilized mood. After his discovery, Lithium was prescribed commonly, and mineral springs containing Lithium were sought after for their healing properties. For 50 years following the discovery, it was never understood how Lithium treatment worked but then in 1998, University of Wisconsin researchers solved the mystery. The secret of lithium on our mood has to do with nerve cells in the brain, and the glutamate receptors. In addition to its use for bi-polar disorder and depression, Lithium is also a key element in medications used to treat schizophrenia.

2. Batteries

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Lithium batteries have become a very popular choice for manufacturers with almost all technology. This is because pound for pound, Lithium batteries are significantly lighter than any other batteries alike in size and they can also store more energy than previously used lead-acid batteries. A typical Lithium-Ion battery can store 150 watts in 1 kg of battery, where as the average Lead-Acid battery can only store 4.16 watts but in 1 kg. As an added bonus to its high-storage capabilities and its light-weight characteristic, Lithium-Ion batteries charge faster, last considerably longer and can handle hundreds of charge cycles.

With all the benefits that can be listed with this high powered battery, like anything else does have its own set of flaws. Lithium is a highly reactive element and is sensitive to high temperatures. Though a rare occurrence, when a Lithium-Ion pack fails, it will ignite into a crimson red flame. Lithium is an Alkali Metal which is highly reactive and with that being said, of all the Alkali Metals, it is the least reactive of its category.

3. Other Applications

When thinking of Lithium many people think batteries, but there are so many more applications for this amazing element. Lithium is widely used in heat transfer applications and can be designed into many useful composites such as…

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  • Glasses and Ceramics

When thinking of fancy ceramic china, your mind doesn’t jump to “Lithium” but it may jump to China, the country. China is the world’s leading importer of Lithium. Not only do ceramics and glass contain Lithium is also in most of today’s high-heat cookware.  This metal is so widely used in kitchen cookware because of its many properties which allow it to reduce thermal expansion, increases ceramic body strength and durability, and reduces colour change when applied to other mixtures like cement.

  • Lubricating Greases

Lithium is used in this instance not only for the automotive electronics components but in the grease that helps keep its parts moving. This is more commonly known as White Lithium Grease. This grease adheres particularly well for metal-to-metal applications, resists moisture as well as heat and is non-corrosive. Its makeup provides a thicker product and acts like a sponge that slowly releases oil during use.


With the rise of the EV revolution, there may be no more important application for this amazing element that has so many fantastic properties than its use in batteries. While lithium can be found all over the planet, the demand for this metal is on the rise and could exceed the supply unless we can tap into some of the worlds largest deposits. This will in turn drive the market and the industry as we move into an age of electric vehicles.

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