Lithium: History, Production and Uses
Lithium is part of the alkali metals in the group of chemical elements. The atomic number of lithium is 3 and it is represented on the periodic table under the symbol Li. It is silver-white in color and soft. Lithium in standard conditions has the lowest density of all solid elements and is also the lightest of the metals. As with all of the alkali metals, lithium is extremely flammable and reactive. This is why it is usually stored in mineral oil.
The high reactivity of lithium means that it does not occur freely in nature and is only seen in compounds. Typically these compounds are ionic. There are a number of pegmatitic minerals that contain lithium. However, because of its water solubility, it is found in the ocean and usually gathered from clays and brines. For commercial use, lithium is electrolytically isolated from a mix of potassium chloride and lithium chloride.
In 1800, petalite, was found by Jose Bonifacio de Andrada, a Brazilian. It was found in Uto, Sweden within a mine that is part of the island. However, Johan August Arfwedson discovered the new element in 1817 while working in the lab of Jons Jakob Berzelius. The new element would form compounds that were similar to compounds formed by potassium and sodium, but the hydroxide and carbonate were not as soluble in water, it was also more alkaline.
Berzelius named the material "lithionlithina" which comes from the Greek word lithos that means stone. This was to reflect that it had been discovered in a solid mineral. This was different than potassium, which was discovered in the ashes of plants and sodium that is highly abundant in the blood of animals.
The production of lithium has increased greatly since World War II ended. Lithium salts are pulled from water in brine pools, brine deposits, and from mineral springs. The metal can then be produced using electrolytic processes that use a combination of potassium chloride and lithium chloride.
There are deposits of lithium found throughout the Andes Mountains in South America. Chili is the top producer of lithium, with Argentina following. Both of these countries get the lithium from brine pools. Within the United States, there are brine pools in Nevada that lithium is recovered from.
There are many different uses of lithium. Lithium oxide can be used for improving the physical properties of glass and ceramics. Ovenware uses lithium oxides and is the largest use for lithium compounds throughout the world.
In the late part of the 20th century, lithium became an important anode material that is used for making lithiumion batteries. The high electrochemical potential of lithium allows it to generate around 3 volts of energy compared to 2.1 volts that are generated from lead/acid batteries or the 1.5 volts generated from zinc-carbon cells.
Lithium is also commonly used in greases. A strong base is made from lithium hydroxide, which can be heated with fat to produce soap from the lithium stearate. The lithium soap can thicken oils, which is used for high temperature, all purpose greases.
To find out more about the chemical element lithium or lithium mining companies, please visit PublicMining.org, a free resource directory showcasing public mining companies.
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