lithium
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Lithium (revised)

LITHIUM (REVISED)

Note: This article, originally published in 1998, was updated in 2006 for the eBook edition.

Overview

Lithium is the first member of the alkali metal family. The alkali metals are the elements that make up Group 1 (IA) of the periodic table. The periodic table is a chart that shows how chemical elements are related to one another. The alkali metals include sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and rancium. Lithium is also the least dense of all metals. It has a density about half that of water.

Credit for the discovery of lithium usually goes to Swedish chemist Johan August Arfwedson (or Arfvedson; 1792-1841). Arfwedson found the new element in a mineral that had first been identified about twenty years earlier by Brazilian scientist Jozée Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva (1763-1838). That mineral, petalite, is still a major source of lithium today.

Lithium has a number of important and interesting uses. In recent years, it has been used to make lightweight, efficient batteries. Compounds of lithium have also been used to treat a mental disorder known as bipolar disorder.

SYMBOL
Li

ATOMIC NUMBER
3

ATOMIC MASS
6.941

FAMILY
Group 1 (IA)
Alkali metal

PRONUNCIATION
LI-thee-um

Discovery and naming

The first clues to the existence of lithium surfaced in 1800. De Andrada was a Brazilian scientist and statesman visiting in Scandinavia. During one of his trips to the countryside, he came across a mineral that he did not recognize. He called the mineral petalite.

Some scientists were not convinced that petalite was a new mineral. But in 1817, the same mineral was rediscovered on the island of Utö. Interest in the mineral grew.

Arfwedson was troubled by the results of his analysis of petalite. In his studies, he could not identify 10 percent of the mineral. He finally concluded that the missing 10 percent must be a new element. He called the new element lithium, from the Greek word lithos for "stone."

Arfwedson was not able to produce pure lithium. About a year later, however, Swedish chemist William Thomas Brande (1788-1866) and English chemist Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) were both able to extract the pure metal from its compounds. (See sidebar on Davy in the calcium entry in Volume 1.)

7

Physical properties

Lithium is a very soft, silvery metal. It has a melting point of 180.54°C (356.97°F) and a boiling point of about 1,335°C (2,435°F). Its density is 0.534 grams per cubic centimeter. By comparison, the density of water is 1.000 grams per cubic centimeter. Lithium's hardness on the Mohs scale is 0.6. The Mohs scale is a way of expressing the hardness of a material. It runs from 0 (for talc) to 10 (for diamond). A hardness of 0.6 means that the material can be scratched with a fingernail.

Chemical properties

Lithium is an active element, but not as active as the other alkali metals. It reacts slowly with water at room temperature and more rapidly at higher temperatures. It also reacts with most acids, giving off hydrogen gas. Lithium does not react with oxygen at room temperature, but above 100°C does so to form lithium oxide (Li20). Under the proper conditions, the element also combines with sulfur, hydrogen, nitrogen, and the halogens.

Occurrence in nature

The abundance of lithium in the Earth's crust is estimated to be about 0.005 percent. That places it among the top 15 elements found in the earth. The most common ores of lithium are spodumene, petalite, and lepidolite. Lithium is also obtained from saltwater. As saltwater evaporates, dissolved solids are left behind. These solids include sodium chloride (NaCl), potassium chloride (KCl), and lithium chloride (LiCl).

The world's largest producer of lithium is the United States. Three of the largest U.S. mines are located in Silver Peak, Nevada, and Kings Mountain and Bessemer City, North Carolina. Other major producers of lithium compounds are Australia, Russia, Canada, Zimbabwe, Chile, and China.

Isotopes

Two naturally occurring isotopes of lithium exist, Lithium-6 and lithium-7. Isotopes are two or more forms of an element. Isotopes differ from each other according to their mass number. The number written to the right of the element's name is the mass number. The mass number represents the number of protons plus neutrons in the nucleus of an atom of the element. The number of protons determines the element, but the number of neutrons in the atom of any one element can vary. Each variation is an isotope.

In addition, three radioactive isotopes of lithium have been produced. A radioactive isotope is one that breaks apart and gives off some form of radiation. Radioactive isotopes are produced when very small particles are fired at atoms. These particles stick in the atoms and make them radioactive. None of these isotopes has any important commercial application.

Extraction

Lithium compounds are first converted to lithium chloride (LiCl). Then, an electric current is passed through molted (melted) lithium chloride. The current separates the compound into lithium and chlorine gas:

Uses and compounds

Lithium metal and its compounds have a great many uses. Two of the most significant applications are in the glass and ceramics field and in the production of aluminum. The addition of a small amount of lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) to a glass or ceramic makes the material stronger. Examples of the use of lithium carbonate are shock-resistant cookware (such as the Pyrex brand) and black-and-white television tubes. About 40 percent of the lithium used in the United States in 1996 went to these applications.

Lithium carbonate is added to glass to make it stronger. Pyrex cookware is made up of this kind of glass.

Producers of aluminum also use lithium carbonate in preparing aluminum metal from aluminum oxide. Lithium carbonate reduces the heat needed to make the reaction occur. As a result, producers save money by using less energy. In 1996, about 20 percent of all lithium carbonate produced in the United States went to this application.

Another important compound of lithium is lithium stearate. Lithium stearate is added to petroleum to make a thick lubricating grease. The grease is used in many industrial applications because it does not break down at high temperatures, it does not become hard when cooled, and it does not react with water or oxygen in the air. Lithium greases are used in military, industrial, automotive, aircraft, and marine applications. Lithium stearate is also used as an additive in cosmetics and plastics. Overall, the manufacture of lithium stearate is the third most important use of lithium compounds after glasses and ceramics manufacture and aluminum production.

The first commercial use of lithium was in the production of alloys. An alloy is made by melting and mixing two or more metals. The mixture has properties different from those of the individual metals. Early lithium alloys included lead and were used to make tough ball bearings for machinery.

Feeling better with lithium

A n exciting new use for lithium carbonate was discovered in 1949. John Cade (1912-80), an Australian physician, found that patients with bipolar disorder benefitted from taking lithium carbonate. Bipolar disorder is a condition once known as manic-depressive disorder. The condition is characterized by dramatic mood swings. A person can be very happy and carefree one moment, but terribly depressed the next moment. Some patients become so depressed that they commit suicide. Until 1949, there was no effective treatment for bipolar disorder.

Cade found that most patients who took lithium carbonate were relieved of at least some of their symptoms. Their "high" points were not as high, and their "low" points were not as low. The compound helped someone with bipolar disorder to live a quieter, more normal life. Today, more than 60 percent of those with bipolar disorder benefit from lithium treatments.

As with most medications, lithium compounds can have side effects. They can cause nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, dry mouth, and weight gain. But these side effects can usually be controlled. And they are often a small price to pay for relief from the terrible effects of bipolar disorder.

Today, the most commonly used alloys of lithium are made with aluminum or magnesium. These alloys are very light, but very strong. They are used for armor plates and in aerospace applications.

Lithium compounds are also used as catalysts in many different industrial processes. A catalyst is a substance used to speed up or slow down a chemical reaction. The catalyst does not undergo any change itself during the reaction. For example, one lithium catalyst is used to make tough, strong, synthetic (artificial) rubber. It does not have to be vulcanized (heat-treated) like natural rubber.

Lithium has become important in the manufacture of batteries. A battery is a device for converting chemical energy into electrical energy. Car batteries use a chemical reaction between lead and sulfuric acid to make electrical energy.

Lithium batteries are much lighter than lead and sulfuric acid batteries. They also reduce the use of toxic lead and cadmium. Lithium batteries are used in products such as watches, microcomputers, cameras, small appliances, electronic games, toys, and many kinds of military and space vehicles.

Lithium compounds tend to harm the kidneys.

Health effects

Lithium and its compounds have a range of effects on the human body. For instance, compounds of lithium tend to harm the kidneys. And lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) can affect a person's mental health (see accompanying sidebar).

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Lithium

Lithium

Lithium is an alkali metal. It is silvery white in color. When burned, it gives off a crimson glow. Lithium occurs in nature only in compound form. The story of lithium's discovery began in 1800 with a report by a Brazilian scientist named Jose Bonifacio de Andrada e Silvio. He discovered two metals while traveling in Sweden and called them "spodumene" and "petalite." These two metals were rediscovered by a Swedish chemist, E. T. Svenenstjema. Investigation of the metals was puzzling, because anywhere from one to ten percent of the components was unaccounted for during chemical analysis.

Arfvedson's Studies Lead to Discovery

The explanation for this problem was provided by Johan August Arfvedson, a young man working in the laboratory of Jons Berzelius. The components Arfvedson identified in the mineral added up to 95 or 105 percent, but never 100 percent. He concluded that these results could be explained only by the presence of a new element in the mineral. He proposed the name "lithium" for the new element, which comes from the Greek word "lithos," or "stone."

Arfvedson was never able to isolate the pure metal itself. That was accomplished by W. T. Brande (1788-1866) and Humphry Davy (1778-1829) working independently in 1818. The men obtained the metal through electrolysis of lithium oxide. By 1855, Bunsen and Matthiessen had discovered a way to produce the metal in large quantities and could manufacture a few grams of it in a matter of minutes.

Researchers soon found lithium in both plants and animals, although only in small amounts. In 1860, Gustav Kirchhoff and Bunsen found lithium in the ash of grapes, tobacco, kelp, and in milk. Later, researchers also found the element in human urine, bones, and teeth.

Medical Uses

A number of lithium compounds have important pharmacological effects. Lithium carbonate is the most commonly used of the compounds. In the early nineteenth century, these compounds were used to treat gout (an illness characterized by a painful swelling of the joints), and lithium bromide was used to induce sleep.

In 1949, J. F. J. Cade of Australia was looking for toxic (poisonous) nitrogenous substances in the urine of mental patients by testing guinea pigs. He administered lithium salts to the animals in an attempt to increase the solubility of urates so that they would be secreted more readily in the urine. Lithium carbonate, one of the salts, made the animals sleepy. He then gave lithium carbonate to severely agitated or manic patients. He reported that this treatment seemed to have a dramatic effect on mania.

Lithium carbonate was not accepted for use in the United States until 1970, however, owing to fears about its safety. These fears existed because doctors in the 1940s had used lithium chloride as a salt substitute in heart patients and others who were chronically ill. This was ill-advised and led to severe toxicities (poisonous reactions) and death.

Today lithium carbonate successfully controls the wild mood swings from depression to elation observed in manic-depressive illness (also known as bipolar disorder). It produces the most dramatic therapeutic improvement of any drug used in psychiatry.

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lithium

lithium (lĬth´ēəm) [Gr.,=stone], metallic chemical element; symbol Li; at. no. 3; interval in which at. wt. ranges 6.938–6.997; m.p. about 180.54°C; b.p. about 1,342°C; sp. gr. .534 at 20°C; valence +1. Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal. It is one of the alkali metals in Group 1 of the periodic table. It is the least dense metal. Because it has high specific heat, it has found some use in cooling systems for nuclear reactors; such use is limited because lithium is very corrosive. Lithium metal is prepared by electrolysis of fused lithium chloride. Lithium reacts with water less readily than sodium. It burns in air with a brilliant white flame. Lithium forms many inorganic compounds, among them a hydride (LiH), a nitride (Li3N), an oxide (lithia, Li2O), a hydroxide (LiOH), a carbide (Li2C2), a carbonate (Li2CO3), and a phosphate (Li3PO4). When heated it reacts directly with the halogens to form halides. Lithium aluminum hydride (LiAlH4) is an important reagent in organic chemistry. Lithium also forms numerous organic compounds. One compound of major importance is lithium stearate, produced by cooking tallow (or other animal fat) with lithium hydroxide; lithium stearate is used to transform oil into lithium-base lubricating greases, which have found extensive use in the automotive industry. Lithium carbonate is used in special glasses and ceramic glazes. Lithium chloride and bromide are used as brazing and welding fluxes; they are also used in air conditioning systems because they are very hygroscopic, i.e., they absorb moisture. Lithium hydroxide is used to increase the capacity of alkaline storage cells. Lithium compounds are used in the nuclear energy industry, in the preparation of plastics and synthetic rubber, and in the synthesis of vitamin A. Lithium is added in small amounts to magnesium, aluminum, or lead-base alloys; it is also used as a degasifier in iron, steel, and copper refining. In addition, lithium is used to scavenge small amounts of oxygen and nitrogen in electronic vacuum tubes. Trace amounts of lithium and its compounds color a flame bright red; they are used in pyrotechnics. Lithium in the salt form has recently come into use as a medical treatment for bipolar disorder. Lithium is widely distributed in nature; it is found in the soil, in plants, in animals, and in the human body. It is also found in the sun. Lithium may be profitably extracted from ores containing as little as 1% lithium (measured as lithium oxide). Some commercially important minerals are lepidolite, petalite, spodumene, and amblygonite. Lithium is also produced from brines such as those in Searles Lake, Calif., and in the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Lithium was discovered in 1817 by J. A. Arfvedson.

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Lithium

Lithium


melting point: 180.5°C
boiling point: 1,342°C
density: 0.534 g/cm
3
most common ions: +1

Lithium is a soft, silvery alkali metal and has the lowest density of any metal. The word "lithium" is derived from "lithos" (Greek for "stone"). Johan A. Arfvedson discovered lithium in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1817. Humphry Davy isolated it via electrolysis in 1818. Currently, lithium metal is generated by the electrolysis of a molten mixture of lithium chloride, LiCl, and potassium chloride, KCl. In nature it is never found in its elemental form. Its main sources are the minerals spodumene, petalite, lepidolite, and amblygonite. Lithium's average crustal abundance is about 18 ppm. It has the highest specific heat of any solid element and is the least reactive alkali metal toward water. Lithium burns crimson in the flame test.

Metallic lithium has a variety of uses. It is used as an anode material in batteries and as a heat transfer agent. Magnesium-lithium alloys are used to produce armor plate and aerospace materials, while aluminum-lithium alloys find applications in the aircraft industry. Lithium is also used to produce chemical reagents such as LiAlH4 (a reducing agent ) and n -butylithium (a strong base).

Compounds of lithium are also economically important. Air conditioning systems use LiCl and LiBr because they are very hygroscopic and readily absorb water from the air. Thermonuclear weapons incorporate lithium deuteride, LiD. Lithium stearate is obtained by treating tallow with lithium hydroxide, LiOH, and is used as a thickener that imparts high temperature resistance to lubricants. Carbon dioxide removal systems in submarines and spacecraft use LiOH. Lithium carbonate, Li2CO3, is used to increase the electrical current flow in the electrolytic production of aluminum from bauxite and to strengthen glasses by substituting for sodium ions. Although lithium carbonate has been used to treat bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder since 1949, its mechanism of operation is still not completely understood.

see also Alkali Metals; Davy, Humphry.

Nathan J. Barrows

Bibliography

Emsley, John (2001). Nature's Building Blocks: An AZ Guide to the Elements. New York: Oxford University Press.

Greenwood, Norman N., and Earnshaw, A. (1997). Chemistry of the Elements, 2nd edition. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Lide, David R., ed. (2000). The CRC Handbook of Chemistry & Physics, 81st edition. New York: CRC Press.

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lithium

lithium (symbol Li) Common, silvery metallic element, one of the alkali metals, first isolated in 1817. Ores include lepidolite and spodumene. Chemically, it is similar to sodium. Lithium, the lightest of all metals, is used in alloys, glasses and glazes; its salts are used in medicine. Properties at.no. 3; r.a.m. 6.941; r.d. 0.534; m.p. 180.5°C (356.9°F); b.p. 1347°C (2456.6°F); most stable isotope Li7 (92.58%).

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lithium

lithium (lith-iŭm) n. a drug given by mouth in the form of lithium carbonate or lithium citrate for the prevention and treatment of episodes of mania or recurrent depression in patients with bipolar affective disorder. Thyroid function can be impaired after many years of use and regular thyroid function tests are compulsory. Trade names: Priadel, etc.

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"lithium." A Dictionary of Nursing. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. 25 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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lithium

lith·i·um / ˈli[unvoicedth]ēəm/ • n. the chemical element of atomic number 3, a soft silver-white metal. It is the lightest of the alkali metals. (Symbol: Li) ∎  lithium carbonate or another lithium salt, used as a mood-stabilizing drug.

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"lithium." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. Encyclopedia.com. 25 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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lithium

lithium Metal not known to have any physiological function, although it occurs in food and water; lithium salts are used in the treatment of manic‐depressive illness.

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DAVID A. BENDER. "lithium." A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. 25 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

DAVID A. BENDER. "lithium." A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O39-lithium.html

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lithium

lithium •columbium •erbium, terbium, ytterbium •scandium • compendium •palladium, radium, stadium, vanadium •medium, tedium •cryptosporidium, cymbidium, idiom, iridium, rubidium •indium •exordium, Gordium, rutherfordium •odeum, odium, plasmodium, podium, sodium •allium, gallium, pallium, thallium, valium •berkelium, epithelium, helium, nobelium, Sealyham •beryllium, cilium, psyllium, trillium •linoleum, petroleum •thulium • cadmium •epithalamium, prothalamium •gelsemium, premium •chromium, encomium •holmium • fermium •biennium, millennium •cranium, geranium, germanium, Herculaneum, titanium, uranium •helenium, proscenium, rhenium, ruthenium, selenium •actinium, aluminium, condominium, delphinium •ammonium, euphonium, harmonium, pandemonium, pelargonium, plutonium, polonium, zirconium •neptunium •europium, opium •aquarium, armamentarium, barium, caldarium, cinerarium, columbarium, dolphinarium, frigidarium, herbarium, honorarium, planetarium, rosarium, sanitarium, solarium, sudarium, tepidarium, terrarium, vivarium •atrium •delirium, Miriam •equilibrium, Librium •yttrium •auditorium, ciborium, conservatorium, crematorium, emporium, moratorium, sanatorium, scriptorium, sudatorium, vomitorium •opprobrium •cerium, imperium, magisterium •curium, tellurium •potassium • axiom • calcium •francium • lawrencium • americium •Latium, solatium •lutetium, technetium •Byzantium • strontium • consortium •protium • promethium • lithium •alluvium, effluvium •requiem • colloquium • gymnasium •caesium (US cesium), magnesium, trapezium •Elysium • symposium

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