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Alkali Metals



Group 1 of the periodic table of elements consists of hydrogen, and below it the six alkali metals: lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium. The last three are extremely rare, and have little to do with everyday life; on the other hand, it is hard to spend a day without encountering at least one of the first threeparticularly sodium, found in table salt. Along with potassium, sodium is an important component of the human diet, and in compounds with other substances, it has an almost endless array of uses. Lithium does not have as many applications, but to many people who have received it as a medication for bipolar disorder, it is quite literally a life-saver.


Electron Configuration of the Alkali Metals

In the essay on Families of Elements, there is a lengthy discussion concerning the relationship between electron configuration and the definition of a particular collection of elements as a "family." Here that subject will only be touched upon lightly, inasmuch as it relates to the alkali metals.

All members of Group 1 on the periodic table of elements have a valence electron configuration of s 1. This means that a single electron is involved in chemical bonding, and that this single electron moves through an orbital, or range of probabilities, roughly corresponding to a sphere.

Most elements bond according to what is known as the octet rule, meaning that when two or more atoms are bonded, each has (or shares) eight valence electrons. It is for this reason that the noble gases, at the opposite side of the periodic table from the alkali metals, almost never bond with other elements: they already have eight valence electrons.

The alkali metals, on the other hand, are quite likely to find "willing partners," since they each have just one valence electron. This brings up one of the reasons why hydrogen, though it is also part of Group 1, is not included as an alkali metal. First and most obviously, it is not a metal; additionally, it bonds according to what is called the duet rule, such that it shares two electrons with another element.

Chemical and Physical Characteristics of the Alkali Metals

The term "alkali" (essentially the opposite of an acid) refers to a substance that forms the negatively charged hydroxide ion (OH) in contact with water. On their own, however, alkali metals almost always form positive ions, or cations, with a charge of +1.

When alkali metals react with water, one hydrogen atom splits off from the water molecule to form hydrogen gas, while the other hydrogen atom joins the oxygen to form hydroxide. Where the heavier members of the alkali metal family are concerned, reactions can often be so vigorous that the result is combustion or even explosion. Alkali metals also react with oxygen to produce either an oxide, peroxide, or superoxide, depending on the particular member of the alkali metal family involved.

Shiny and soft enough to be cut with a knife, the alkali metals are usually white (though cesium is more of a yellowish white). When placed in a flame, most of these substances produce characteristic colors: lithium, for instance, glows bright red, and sodium an intense yellow. Heated potassium produces a violet color, rubidium a dark red, and cesium a light blue. This makes it possible to identify the metals, when heated, by colora useful trait, since they are so often inclined to be bonded with other elements.


As one moves down the rows or periods of the periodic table, the mass of atoms increases, as does the energy each atom possesses. Yet the amount of energy required to turn a solid alkali metal into a liquid, or to vaporize a liquid alkali metal, actually decreases with higher atomic number. In other words, the higher the atomic number, the lower the boiling and melting points.

The list below lists the six alkali metals in order of atomic number, along with chemical symbol, atomic mass, melting point, and boiling point. Note that for francium, which is radioactive, the figures given are for its most stable isotope, francium-223 (223Fr)which has a half-life of only about 21 minutes.

Atomic Number, Mass, and Melting and Boiling Points of the Alkali Metals:

  • 3. Lithium (Li), 6.941; Melting Point: 356.9°F (180.5°C); Boiling Point: 2,457°F (1,347°C)
  • 11. Sodium (Na), 22.99; Melting Point: 208°F (97.8°C); Boiling Point: 1,621.4°F (883°C)
  • 19. Potassium (K), 39.10; Melting Point: 145.9°F (63.28°C); Boiling Point: 1,398.2°F (759°C)
  • 37. Rubidium (Rb), 85.47; Melting Point: 102.8°F (39.31°C); Boiling Point: 1,270.4°F (688°C)
  • 55. Cesium (Cs), 132.9; Melting Point: 83.12°F (28.4°C); Boiling Point: 1,239.8°F (671°C)
  • 87. Francium (Fr), (223); Melting Point: 80.6°F (27°C); Boiling Point: 1,250.6°F (677°C)

Abundance of Alkali Metals

Sodium and potassium are, respectively, the sixth and seventh most abundant elements on Earth, comprising 2.6% and 2.4% of the planet's known elemental mass. This may not seem like much, but considering the fact that just two elementsoxygen and siliconmake up about 75%, and that just 16 elements make up most of the remainder, it is an impressive share.

Lithium, on the other hand, is much less abundant, and therefore, figures for its part of Earth's known elemental mass are measured in parts per million (ppm). The total lithium in Earth's crust is about 17 ppm. Surprisingly, rubidium is more abundant, at 60 ppm; less surprisingly, cesium, with just 3 ppm, is very rare. Almost no francium is found naturally, except in very small quantities within uranium ores.



Swedish chemist Johan August Arfvedson (1792-1841) discovered lithium in 1817, and named it after the Greek word for "stone." Four years later, another scientist named W. T. Brande succeeded in isolating the highly reactive metal. Most of the lithium available on Earth's crust is bound up with aluminum and silica in minerals.

Since the time of its discovery, lithium has been used in lubricants, glass, and in alloys of lead, aluminum, and magnesium. In glass, it acts as a strengthening agent; likewise, metal alloys that contain lithium tend to be stronger, yet less dense. In 1994, physicist Jeff Dahn of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, developed a lithium battery. Not only was the battery cheaper to produce than the traditional variety, Dahn and his colleagues announced, but the disposal of used lithium batteries presented less danger to the environment.

One of the most striking uses of lithium occurred in 1932, when English physicist John D. Cockcroft (1897-1967) and Irish physicist Ernest Walton (1903-1995) built the first particle accelerator. By bombarding lithium atoms, they produced highly energized alpha particles. This was the first nuclear reaction brought about by the use of artificially accelerated particlesin other words, without the need for radioactive materials such as uranium-235. Cockcroft's and Walton's experiment with lithium thus proved pivotal to the later creation of the atomic bomb.


The most important application of lithium, however, is in treatment for the psychiatric condition once known as manic depression, today identified as bipolar disorder. Persons suffering from bipolar disorder tend toward mood swings: during some periods the patient is giddy ("manic," or in a condition of "mania"), and during others the person is suicidal. Indeed, prior to the development of lithium as a treatment for bipolar disorder, as many as one in five patients with this condition committed suicide.

Doctors do not know exactly how lithium does what it does, but it obviously works: between 70% and 80% of patients with the bipolar condition respond well to treatment, and are able to go on with their lives in such a way that their condition is no longer outwardly evident. Lithium is also administered to patients who suffer unipolar depression and some forms of schizophrenia.


It is said that the great Greco-Roman physician Galen (129-c. 199) counseled patients suffering from "mania" to bathe in, and even drink the water from, alkaline springs. If so, he was nearly 2,000 years ahead of his time. Even in the 1840s, not long after lithium was discovered, the mineralmixed with carbonate or citratewas touted as a cure for insomnia, gout, epilepsy, diabetes, and even cancer.

None of these alleged cures proved a success; nor did a lithium chloride treatment administered in the 1940s as a salt substitute for patients on low-sodium diets. As it turned out, when not enough sodium is present, the body experiences a buildup of sodium's sister element, lithium. The result was poisoning, which in some cases proved fatal.


Then in 1949, Australian psychiatrist John Cade discovered the value of lithium for psychiatric treatment. He approached the problem from an entirely different angle, experimenting with uric acid, which he believed to be a cause of manic behavior. In administering the acid to guinea pigs, he added lithium salts merely to keep the uric acid solubleand was very surprised by what he discovered. The uric acid did not make the guinea pigs manic, as he had expected; instead, they became exceedingly calm.

Cade changed the focus of his research, and tested lithium treatment on ten manic patients. Again, the results were astounding: one patient who had suffered from an acute bipolar disorder (as it is now known) for five years was released from the hospital after three months of lithium treatment, and went on to lead a healthy, normal life.

Encouraged by the changes he had seen in patients who received lithium, Cade published a report on his findings in the Medical Journal of Australia, but his work had little impact at the time. Nor did the idea of lithium treatment meet with an enthusiastic reception on the other side of the Pacific: in the aftermath of the failed experiments with lithium as a sodium substitute in the 1940s, stories of lithium poisoning were widespread in the United States.


Were it not for the efforts of Danish physician Mogens Schou, lithium might never have taken hold in the medical community. During the 1950s and 1960s, Schou campaigned tirelessly for recognition of lithium as a treatment for manic-depressive illness. Finally during the 1960s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began conducting trials of lithium, and approved its use in 1974. Today some 200,000 Americans receive lithium treatments.

A non-addictive and non-sedating medication, lithiumas evidenced by the failed experiment in the 1940smay still be dangerous in large quantities. It is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and carried to all tissues in the brain and body before passing through the kidneys. Both lithium and sodium are excreted through the kidneys, and since sodium affects lithium excretion, it is necessary to maintain a proper quantity of sodium in the body. For this reason, patients on lithium are cautioned to avoid a low-salt diet.


Sodium compounds had been known for some time prior to 1807, when English chemist Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) succeeded in isolating sodium itself. The element is represented by a chemical symbol (Na), reflecting its Latin name, natrium. In its pure form, sodium has a bright, shiny surface, but in order to preserve this appearance, it must be stored in oil: sodium reacts quickly with oxygen, forming a white crust of sodium oxide.

Pure sodium never occurs in nature; instead, it combines readily with other substances to form compounds, many of which are among the most widely used chemicals in industry. It is also highly soluble: thus whereas sodium and potassium occur in crystal rocks at about the same ratio, sodium is about 30 times more abundant in sea-water than its sister element.


Though the extraction of sodium involves the use of a special process, the metal is plentiful in the form of sodium chloridebetter known as table salt. In fact, the term salt in chemistry refers generally to any combination of a metal with a nonmetal. More specifically, salts are (along with water) the product of reactions between acids and bases.

Sodium chloride is so easy to obtain, and therefore so cheap, that most industries making other sodium compounds use it, simply separating out the chloride (as described below) before adding other elements. The United States is the world's largest producer of sodium chloride, obtained primarily from brine, a term used to describe any solution of sodium chloride in water. Brine comes from seawater, subterranean wells, and desert lakes, such as the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Another source of sodium chloride is rock salt, created underground by the evaporation of long-buried saltwater seas.

Other top sodium-chloride-producing nations include China, Germany, Great Britain, France, India, and various countries in the former Soviet Union. Salt may be cheap and plentiful for the world in general, but there are places where it is a precious commodity. One such place is the Sahara Desert, where salt caravans ply a brisk trade today, much as they have since ancient times.


Modern methods for the production of sodium represent an improvement in the technique Davy used in 1807, although the basic principle is the same. Though several decades passed before electricity came into widespread public use, scientists had been studying its properties for years, and Davy applied it in a process called electrolysis.

Electrolysis is the use of an electric current to produce a chemical reactionin this case, to separate sodium from the other element or elements with which it is combined. Davy first fused or melted a sample of sodium chloride, then electrolyzed it. Using an electrode, a device that conducts electricity and is used to emit or collect electric charge, he separated the sodium chloride in such a way that liquid sodium metal collected on the cathode, or negatively charged end. Meanwhile, the gaseous chlorine was released through the anode, or the positively charged end.

The apparatus used for sodium separation today is known as the Downs cell, after its inventor, J. C. Downs. In a Downs cell, sodium chloride and calcium chloride are combined in a molten mixture in which the presence of calcium chloride lowers the melting point of the sodium chloride by more than 30%. When an electric current is passed through the mixture, sodium ions move to the cathode, where they pick up electrons to become sodium atoms. At the same time, ions of chlorine migrate to the anode, losing electrons to become chlorine atoms.

Sodium is a low-density material that floats on water, and in the Downs cell, the molten sodium rises to the top, where it is drawn off. The chlorine gas is allowed to escape through a vent at the top of the anode end of the cell, and the resulting sodium metalthat is, the elemental form of sodiumis about 99.8% pure.


As indicated earlier, sodium chloride is by far the most widely known and commonly used sodium compoundand this in itself is a distinction, given the fact that so many sodium compounds are a part of daily life. Today people think of salt primarily as a seasoning to enhance the taste of food, but prior to the development of refrigeration, it was vital as a preservative because it kept microbes away from otherwise perishable food items.

Salt does not merely improve the taste of food; it is an essential nutrient. Sodium compounds regulate transmission of signals through the nervous system, alter the permeability of membranes, and perform a number of other life-preserving functions. On the other hand, too much salt can aggravate high blood pressure. Thus, since the 1970s and 1980s, food manufacturers have increasingly offered products low in sodium, a major selling point for health-conscious consumers.


In addition to its widespread use in consumer goods, sodium chloride is the principal source of sodium used in making other sodium compounds. These include sodium hydroxide, for manufacturing cellulose products such as film, rayon, soaps, and paper, and for refining petroleum. In its application as a cleaning solution, sodium hydroxide is known as caustic soda or lye.

Another widely used sodium compound is sodium carbonate or, soda ash, applied in glass-making, paper production, textile manufacturing, and other areas, such as the production of soaps and detergents. Sodium also can be combined with carbon to produce sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda. Sodium sulfate, sometimes known as salt cake, is used for making cardboard and kraft paper. Yet another widely used sodium compound is sodium silicate, or "water glass," used in the production of soaps, detergents, and adhesives; in water treatment; and in bleaching and sizing of textiles.

Still other sodium compounds used by industry and/or consumers include sodium borate, or borax; sodium tartrate, or sal tartar; the explosive sodium nitrate, or Chilean salt-peter; and the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG). Perhaps ironically, there are few uses for pure metallic sodium. Once applied as an "anti-knock" additive in leaded gasoline, before those products were phased out for environmental reasons, metallic sodium is now used as a heat-exchange medium in nuclear reactors. But its widest application is in the production of the many other sodium compounds used around the world.


In some ways, potassium is a strange substance, as evidenced by its behavior in response to water. As everyone knows, water tends to put out a fire, and most explosives, when exposed to sufficient quantities of water, become ineffective. Potassium, on the other hand, explodes in contact with water and reacts violently with ice at temperatures as low as 148°F (100°C). In a complete reversal of the procedures normally followed for most substances, potassium is stored in kerosene, because it might burst into flames if exposed to moist air!

Many aspects of potassium mirror those already covered with regard to sodium. The two have a number of the same applications, and in certain situations, potassium is used as a sodium substitute. Like sodium, potassium is never found alone in nature; instead, it comes primarily from sylvinite and carnalite, two ores containing potassium chloride. Also, like sodium, potassium was first isolated in 1807 by Davy, using the process of electrolysis described above. A few years later, a German chemist dubbed the newly isolated element "kalium," apparently a derivation of the Arabic qali, for "alkali"; hence the use of K as the chemical symbol for potassium.


Potassium has another similarity with sodium; although it was not isolated until the early nineteenth century, its compounds have been in use for many centuries. The Romans, for instance, used potassium carbonate, or potash, obtained from the ashes of burned wood, to make soap. During the Middle Ages, the Chinese applied a form of saltpeter, potassium nitrate, in making gunpowder. And in colonial America, potash went into the production of soap, glass, and other products.

The production of just one ton of potash required the burning of several acres' worth of treesa wasteful practice in more ways than one. Though there was no environmentalist movement in those days, financial concerns never go out of style. In order to save the money lost by using up vast acres of timber, American industry in the nineteenth century sought another means of making potash. The many similarities between sodium and potassium provided a key, and the substitution of sodium carbonate for potassium carbonate saved millions of trees.

In 1847, German chemist Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) discovered potassium in living tissues. As a result, scientists became aware of the role this alkali metal plays in sustaining life: indeed, potassium is present in virtually all living cells. In the human body, potassiumwhich accounts for only 0.4% of the body's massis essential to the functioning of muscles. In larger quantities, however, it can be dangerous, causing a state of permanent relaxation known as potassium inhibition.

Since plants depend on potassium for growth, it was only logical that potassium, in the form of potassium chloride, was eventually applied as a fertilizer. This, at least, distinguishes it from its sister element: sodium, or sodium chloride, which can kill plants if administered to the soil in large enough quantities.

Another application of potassium is in the area pioneered by the Chinese about 800 years ago: the manufacture of fireworks and gunpowder from potassium nitrate. Like ammonium nitrate, made infamous by its use in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, potassium nitrate doubles as a fertilizer.

Rubidium, Cesium, and Francium

The three heaviest alkali metals are hardly household names, though one of them, cesium, does have several applications in industry. Rubidium and cesium, discovered in 1860 by German chemist R. W. Bunsen (1811-1899) and German physicist Gustav Robert Kirchhoff (1824-1887), were the first elements ever found using a spectroscope. Matter emits electromagnetic radiation along various spectral lines, which can be recorded using a spectroscope and then analyzed to discern the particular "fingerprint" of the substance in question.

When Bunsen and Kirchhoff saw the bluish spectral lines emitted by one of the two elements, they named it cesium, after a Latin word meaning "sky blue." Cesium, which is very rare, appears primarily in compounds such as pollucite. It is used today in photoelectric cells, military infrared lamps, radio tubes, and video equipment. During the 1940s, American physicist Norman F. Ramsey, Jr. (1915-) built a highly accurate atomic clock based on the natural frequencies of cesium atoms.

Rubidium, by contrast, has far fewer applications, and those are primarily in areas of scientific research. On Earth it is found in pollucite, lepidolite, and carnallite. It is considerably more abundant than cesium, and vastly more so than francium. Indeed, it is estimated that if all the francium in Earth's crust were combined, it would have a mass of about 25 grams.

Francium was discovered in 1939 by French physicist Marguerite Perey (1909-1975), student of the famous French-Polish physicist and chemist Marie Curie (1867-1934). For about four decades, scientists had been searching for the mysterious Element 87, and while studying the decay products of an actinium isotope, actinium-227, Perey discovered that one out of 100 such atoms decayed to form the undiscovered element. She named it francium, after her home-land. Though the discovery of francium solved a mystery, the element has no known uses outside of its applications in research.


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The elements in Group 1 of the periodic table of elements, with the exception of hydrogen. The alkali metals, which include lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium, all have one valence electron in the s 1 orbital, and are highly reactive.


An electrode at the positively charged end of a supply of electric current.


A term used to describe any solution of sodium chloride in water.


An electrode at the negatively charged end of a supply of electric current.


The positive ion that results when an atom loses one or more electrons. All of the alkali metals tend to form +1 cations (pronounced KAT-ie-un).


A structure, often a metal plate or grid, that conducts electricity, and which is used to emit or collect electriccharge.


The use of an electric current to cause a chemical reaction.


The length of time it takes a substance to diminish to one-half its initialamount.


An atom or group of atoms that has lost or gained one or more electrons, and thus has a net electric charge.


Atoms that have an equal number of protons, and hence are of the same element, but differ in their number of neutrons. This results in a difference of mass. Isotopes may be either stable or unstablethat is, radioactive. Such is the case with francium, a radioactive member of the alkali metals family.


A pattern of probabilities regarding the position of an electron for anatom in a particular energy state. The six alkali metals all have valence electrons in an s 1 orbital, which describes a more or less spherical shape.


A chart that shows the elements arranged in order of atomic number. Vertical columns within the periodic table indicate groups or "families" of elements with similar chemical characteristics; the alkali metalsoccupy Group 1.


A term describing a phenomenon whereby certain materials are subject to a form of decay brought about by the emission of high-energy particles. "Decay" in this sense does not mean "rot"; instead, radioactive isotopes continue changing into other isotopes until they become stable.


A compound formed, along with water, by the reaction of an acid and a base. Generally, salts are any compounds that bring together a metal and a nonmetal.


Electrons that occupy the highest energy levels in anatom, and which are involved in chemical bonding. The alkali metals all have one valence electron, in the s 1 orbital.

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Alkali Metals

Alkali metals

The alkali metals are the elements that make up Group 1 of the periodic table: lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium. These elements are all much too active to exist in nature in their native state. However, they do form a number of important compounds, such as table salt (sodium chloride), borax (sodium tetraborate), potash (potassium carbonate), and washing soda (sodium carbonate).

Because the alkali metals all have one electron in the outer orbit of their atoms, they have similar chemical and physical properties. All are shiny, soft enough to cut with a knife, andwith the exception of cesiumwhite. They all react with water vigorously to form hydrogen gas and the hydroxide of the metal. As an example, when potassium metal is added to water, it floats on top of the water and produces an extreme reaction. In fact, so much heat is released that the hydrogen gas produced in the reaction begins to burn.

The usual method for detecting compounds of the alkali metals is with a flame test. A platinum wire is dipped into a solution of the unknown compound and then placed into a hot flame. The color produced is characteristic of the alkali metal present. The lithium flame is bright red; sodium, yellow; potassium, violet; rubidium, dark red; and cesium, blue.

The compounds of lithium, sodium, and rubidium have a number of important practical applications, while the remaining alkali metals have only a limited number of uses.


Lithium occurs in small amounts in Earth's surface, usually in association with compounds of aluminum. Most people know lithium best because of its use (in the form of lithium carbonate) as a way of controlling certain mental disorders. People who suffer from manic depression (a mental illness in which highly excited, agitated manic moods alternate with sad, depressed moods) can often benefit from regular treatments with lithium carbonate. Lithium is also used industrially in lubricants, batteries, glass, and alloys (mixtures of metals) with lead, aluminum, and magnesium.


Sodium is the seventh most abundant element in Earth's surface. It occurs commonly in Earth's oceans in the form of sodium chloride and in crustal rocks as sodium chloride, sodium carbonate, sodium nitrate (saltpetre), sodium sulfate, and sodium borate (borax).

Compounds of sodium are among the most important in all of the chemical industry. Sodium chloride, as table salt, is one of the most widely used chemicals in the world. It also has many industrial uses, such as serving as a raw material in the production of other chemicals. Sodium nitrite is a principle ingredient in gunpowder. The pulp and paper industry uses large amounts of sodium hydroxide, sodium carbonate, and sodium sulfate; the latter is utilized in the production of cardboard and brown paper. Sodium carbonate is used by power companies to absorb sulfur dioxide, a serious pollutant, from smokestack gases. It is also important to the glass and detergent industries. Sodium hydroxide is one of the top ten industrially produced chemicals, heavily used in manufacturing. Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is produced for the food industry as well.

Sodium also plays some important roles in living organisms. It regulates nerve transmission, alters cell membrane permeability, and

performs many other tasks necessary for maintaining life. On the other hand, excesses of sodium can aggravate high blood pressure.


Like sodium, potassium occurs most commonly in the form of the chloride, potassium chloride. It is present both in sea water and as a mineral known as sylvite in Earth's crust. Almost all the potassium used industrially goes into fertilizer. Other important compounds of potassium include potassium hydroxide, used in the manufacture of detergents; potassium chlorate, used for the production of explosives; and potassium bromide, an essential chemical in photography. Like sodium, potassium is a vital nutrient for organisms in a variety of ways.

Rubidium, cesium, and francium

Rubidium and cesium are much less common than are sodium and potassium, ranking numbers 23 and number 45, respectively, in abundance. Both elements also have relatively few practical applications. Rubidium is employed primarily in various kinds of chemical research. One of its compounds has been used to treat patients with depression. In addition, some kinds of glass and radiation detection equipment are made with cesium compounds.

Francium is a radioactive element (one that spontaneously gives off energy in the form of particles or waves by disintegration of their atomic nuclei) and is one of the rarest elements in Earth's surface. It has no uses except for research.

[See also Element, chemical; Periodic table ]

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Alkali Metals

Alkali Metals

Alkali metals are the six elements that comprise Group I in the Periodic Table: lithium (Li), sodium (Na), potassium (K), rubidium (Rb), cesium (Cs), and francium (Fr). Especially when dissolved in water, these elements form strong bases (alkalis) capable of reacting with and neutralizing strong acids.

Each metal has the electron configuration of an inert (noble) gas plus one electron in the next higher s orbital. Thus, Na is 1s 22s 22p 63s 1 or alternatively (Ne)3s 1. Virtually all alkali metal compounds are ionic in nature because this outermost single electron is readily lost, forming relatively stable monovalent ions.

Sodium and potassium are abundant in Earth's crust, each comprising about 2.5 percent, and the two being the 6th and 7th most abundant elements, respectively. Other alkali metals are at least one hundred times less abundant. Francium is virtually nonexistent in the environment since all isotopes are radioactive with short half-lives.

Alkali metals are very reactive, and thus none occurs in a free state in the environment. They spontaneously react with oxygen, water, halogens , phosphorus, sulfur, and other substances; lithium even reacts with nitrogen. Reactions with water can be violent, with the evolution of hydrogen gas and formation of strongly alkaline solutions.

Compounds of various alkali metals were known in ancient times, but the great English chemist Sir Humphry Davy first isolated pure metals, purifying potassium and then sodium in 1807. Sodium is derived from "soda," a term used in the Middle Ages to characterize all alkalis, originally from the Latin sodanum, which was a headache remedy; its symbol Na is derived from the Latin word for soda, natrium. Potassium comes from the French word potasse (later the English potash ), the residue produced when wood ash solutions are evaporated (so-called pot ashes); its symbol K derives from the Latin kalium and ultimately Arabic qali, meaning "alkali." The Swedish chemist J. A. Arfedson discovered lithium during his analysis of the mineral petalite in 1817, although W. T. Brande and Davy first produced the pure metal. The name is derived from the Greek word lithos (meaning "stony").

During their flame spectrometry experiments on mineral waters in 1860, the German chemists Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen determined the existence of cesium from the characteristic two blue lines in the spectrum. Likewise, extracts of the mineral lepidolite exhibited two dark red spectral lines from which the presence of Rb was inferred. Thus, cesium derives from the Latin caesius, meaning "heavenly blue," whereas rubidium derives from rubidus, the Latin word used to describe a very dark red color. Bunsen was able to isolate pure Rb but not Cs, later purified by C. Setterberg. Since all isotopes of Fr are radioactive, it was not discovered until 1939 at the Curie Institute in Paris by Marguerite Perey, although the Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev predicted its existence. Its name derives from that of France, the country where it was discovered.

Because of their metallic and alkaline properties, potassium and especially sodium are widely used in a variety of industrial processes both as metals and as compounds with various other elements. Lithium is rarely used, but does find application in lightweight alloys with magnesium. Rubidium and cesium are not commonly utilized industrially, except for some applications in electronics. Sodium and potassium are essential for life, sodium being the principal extracellular and potassium the major intracellular monovalent cations. The other alkali metals have no essential biological role.

see also Bunsen, Robert; Cesium; Davy, Humphry; Francium; Lithium; Mendeleev, Dimitri; Potassium; Rubidium; Sodium.

Michael E. Maguire


Nechaev, I.; Jenkins, G. W.; and Van Loon, Borin (1997). Chemical Elements: The Exciting Story of Their Discovery and of the Great Scientists Who Found Them. Jersey City, NJ: Parkwest Publications.

Rossotti, Hazel (1998). Diverse Atoms: Profiles of the Chemical Elements. New York: Oxford University Press.

Internet Resource

Mark (2003). WebElements Periodic Table, Scholar Edition. WebElements Ltd. Additional information available from <>.

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alkali metals

alkali metals, metals found in Group 1 of the periodic table. Compared to other metals they are soft and have low melting points and densities. Alkali metals are powerful reducing agents and form univalent compounds. All react violently with water, releasing hydrogen and forming hydroxides. They tarnish rapidly even in dry air. They are never found uncombined in nature. In order of increasing atomic number the alkali metals are lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium.

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"alkali metals." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved November 20, 2017 from

alkali metals

alkali metals Univalent metals forming Group I of the periodic table: lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, caesium and francium. They are soft silvery-white metals that have low melting points. They tarnish rapidly in air and react violently with water to form hydroxides.

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"alkali metals." World Encyclopedia. . 20 Nov. 2017 <>.

"alkali metals." World Encyclopedia. . (November 20, 2017).

"alkali metals." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved November 20, 2017 from