Due to our current insatiable demand for lithium ion batteries, has the current mobile phone, laptop and hybrid car market inadvertently started a 21st Century lithium rush?
By: Ringo Bones
Another chemical element from the Periodic Table made famous yet again due to our current seemingly insatiable demand for mobile phones, laptops and hybrid cars, it seems like all of the lithium currently being mined out of the Earth’s crust cannot be turned into lithium ion batteries of all shapes and sizes fast enough. But how much do we know about this seemingly enigmatic chemical element?
Lithium, symbol Li, is a metallic chemical element that is a member of the alkali metal family or Group I A in the periodic table of elements which also includes cesium, francium, potassium, rubidium and sodium. Lithium is the lightest of all solid elements and was discovered by the Swedish chemist Johann August Arfvedson in 1817, but was not isolated in quantity until in 1855, when Robert von Bunsen and Augustus Matthiesen decomposed fused lithium chloride via electrolysis.
Comprising 0.0065% of the Earth’s crust, lithium is obtained primarily from the minerals spodumene – which is lithium aluminum silicate; lepidolite – a basic lithium silicate known as lithium mica; and amblygonite – a lithium aluminum fluorophosphate. Nearly 50 other minerals and many mineral waters contain varying amounts of lithium, and traces of the element have been found in meteorites, soils, sugar beets, tobacco, coffee, cereal grains, seaweed, blood, milk and even in muscular and lung tissue. Recently, astronomers have discovered relatively high concentrations of the element lithium in the Sun’s surface that may be proof that our own Solar System may had a “Hot Jupiter” – i.e. a gas giant planet that orbits so close to the Sun – during the distant past that has since crashed into our Sun eons ago.
During the height of the Cold War when the primary use of lithium was in the manufacture of thermonuclear weapons or H-Bombs, the world’s leading producer of lithium is Rhodesia – which later changed its name to Zimbabwe after gaining full independence from Britain in 1980. At present, Bolivia is estimated to contain 40% of the world’s commercially viable deposit of lithium, but President Evo Morales and his administration refuses to deal with any multinational mining concern that doesn’t allow Bolivia to truly benefit from her lithium wealth.
Lithium is found at the head of Group I A of the periodic table. It is silvery white in color and the lightest of all metals. It is a little more than half as heavy as pure sodium metal and less than one third as heavy as beryllium or magnesium. It tarnishes rather slowly in air, so it can be worked at room temperature. At elevated temperatures, it should be handled in an inert atmosphere like argon.
In air, lithium combines with both oxygen and nitrogen, forming lithium oxide and lithium nitride. It reacts with water at a moderate rate generating red heat to combine with hydrogen to form a stable hydride LiH. Lithium also combines with the halogens, carbon and sulphur vapor and reacts vigorously with acids. The specific heat of lithium is 0.79 at 0 degrees Celsius is the highest of any solid element.
Before the advent of today’s lithium ion rechargeable batteries for use in mobile phones, laptops and hybrid cars, lithium is used in alloys, a notable example being as a hardening agent in bearing metals. During the early days of electronics, lithium was also used as a “getter” in vacuum tubes to remove the last traces of oxygen and nitrogen. In the steel industry, lithium is added to the muffle furnace, where parts are being heat treated, to prevent carbon dioxide, oxygen and moisture from forming a scale and to remove carbon on the surface. Making it unnecessary to sandblast or machine the steel, thus greatly simplifying the finishing of the product. Lithium is then recovered at a negligible cost.
The pharmacological applications of lithium include the treatment of gout and of manic depression. And lithium – in the form of lithium chloride – was used in the early 1970s to “recondition” the predatory behavior of coyotes to avoid them from eating valuable livestock. Psychologists Carl Gustavson of East Washington State College and John Garcia of UCLA tried an experiment where lithium chloride was added to livestock carcasses which sickened the coyotes thus made the coyotes avoid food sources – like the farmers’ livestock - that made them deathly ill.