LITHIUM, THE THIRD ROCK FROM NOTHING!
“In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth” [Genesis 1, KJV]. But what is that stuff made of? Well, to start from nothing, at least in this Godly firmament, you need the guide that science provides. The Periodic Table. And that is where lithium fits in. For it is the third element created!
The first ones were hydrogen atoms. But you know all about them. One proton and one electron, the “lighter than air” gas that you do not want in your dirigible [remember the Hindenburg Zeppelin and “Oh the humanity …”]. The most elemental of stuff. And most of the universe is made of it.
The next element is helium, simple again, with two electrons and two protons [and two neutrons to hold them together]. Very stable. Floats easily away on your child’s birthday. And makes you speak like a baby.
Lithium is not a gas, and that is where it gets interesting. It is a solid, and the first metal. It is number three in the Periodic Table of Elements, but is so light that it floats on water! [Don’t float lithium metal, however. It will react with water, producing that flammable hydrogen gas described above!]
Your mood and future driving apparatus may depend on lithium [and soon truly earn its “auto” designation as driving itself!]. And lithium already powers your smart phone. Three protons and three or four neutrons [more often four] in the nucleus, with three electrons in “S” orbitals flying around it [in two levels, and that’s important].
The first ores containing lithium were described, in 1800, from rocks associated with an iron mine on the Swedish island of Uto [just south of Stockholm]. They were called “spodumene” and “petalite.” I have some. In 1817, a new mysterious metallic element [lithium] was identified in the mineral. The famed scientist Sir Humphry Davy [along with William Brande] was the first to isolate a tiny amount of the element in 1821. Not until 1855 was Robert Bunsen [as in Bunsen Burner] able to isolate appreciable quantities.
Petalite ore is a mineral composed of lithium, aluminum, silica, and oxygen [LiAL (Si2O5)2]. Lithium does not naturally occur in pure form. And only 0.0007% of the Earth’s crust is lithium.
Lithium takes more energy than any other element to raise its temperature [specific heat, it melts at 357° F and boils at 2448° F]. This is related to that second electron “S” orbital and the single electron that flies around in it. And being so reactive [that single, second “S” orbital electron again; electrons don’t like to be alone and would rather “pair” up or escape altogether], it alloys well with other metals, adding strength, lightness, and heat capabilities. It is also good as a lubricant that withstands higher temperatures generated by friction. And without that singular third electron, it forms the useful lithium ion!
So when you are next in space, lithium hydroxide is going to purify your cabin by removing the poisonous gas you generate [CO2, carbon dioxide] and producing water [2LiOH + CO2 = Li2CO3 + H2O]. A beneficial trade, if you are thirsty up there!
A key industrial development involving lithium is the rechargeable “lithium ion” battery. Lithium ion batteries originally used “lithium cobalt dioxide” for the positive electrode [cathode] and lithium metal as the negative [anode]. Lithium’s original use in batteries was in the anode, but now graphite is the common negative electrode with lithium [LiC6] in lithium ion batteries. The electrolyte carrying the lithium ion charge between cathode and anode varies greatly, and greatly impacts the performance and safety of the rechargeable battery.
The discovery of the therapeutic value of lithium also has a history. The first use of lithium with humans was for the treatment of gout, physical pain in the joints caused by the accumulation of uric acid crystals. But the medical diagnosis of gout had also been applied to “irregular gout,” a condition then called “uric acid diathesis.” The condition was later discovered to be psychologically generated, and lithium was effective in its treatment. Thus did lithium salts come to be utilized for the treatment of depression in Europe in the late 1800s.
In 1949, an Australian physicist, John Cade, published an article regarding the value of lithium in treating psychiatric illness. But in America, the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] warned the population of risks involving the use of lithium salts, which are toxic in higher concentrations. In the 1950s, further scientific studies fine-tuned dosages and reported on favorable treatment results. Serendipity and the application of the scientific method had resulted in the development of a valuable new tool in the treatment of mental illness.
French Lick, Indiana is a spectacular place. The large, historic mineral spring quickly became an early American destination. By 1840, the area around its spring and salt lick was developed commercially. “Pluto water” was produced there as a bottled laxative, using spring water high in sodium and magnesium sulfate.
What is of interest to this article is the naturally occurring concentration of lithium found in the water. We now know that lithium has psychotropic characteristics, which resulted in it being regulated by the government for pharmacological uses. Was that part of the reason that the sale of Pluto Water was discontinued in 1971?
“7-Up,” the soft drink, also has a colorful history and, at one time, 7-Up was also bottled in French Lick. In 1929, it was called “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda.” In 1948, lithium citrate was removed from its formulation.
Lithium’s use as an electrolyte [electrically conductive solution] in batteries is much more recent. In the late 1960s, 3-volt lithium batteries appeared [lithium metal being used as the anode], and later lithium was used in solar-powered calculators. Experimentation with different ion particles and lithium salts improved battery performance and rechargeability. In 2019, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino for the development of lithium-ion batteries. Take a look at the ones you recently bought. If they are rechargeable, they are probably using lithium.
Tesla is mass-producing electric vehicles using lithium-ion batteries. The Tesla Model S can run as far as 315 miles on a charge, and accelerate to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds [and these numbers are quickly improving through innovation]. The battery pack that powers it weighs 1,200 pounds, with 7,104 lithium ion cells. Tesla uses “mysterious” marketing phrases to describe its breakthrough battery performance. “Ludicrous Mode.” “Max Battery Power.” “Powerwall.” Improvements based on physics and the physical properties of its components. One thing is certain. Battery evolution is accelerating. Is there a “Moore’s Law” driving battery innovation?
Australia, Chile, and China are the largest miners of the lithium mineral. And Bolivia has some of the world’s most abundant reserves of lithium. Maybe 20 million tons of the element! Bolivian lithium is found in “Salar de Uyuni,” the largest salt flat in the world [3,900 square miles], and is found inland at a major tourist and flamingo attraction.
Here is a concern. China currently processes two-thirds of the global supply of lithium. The United States processes only 1%. That imbalance has economic consequences. Maybe even national security concerns. And China leads the world in the production of electric vehicles!
Yet North Carolina also fits into the modern story of lithium. A company there plans on spending $500,000 to mine lithium ore in the Piedmont Region of that state [Piedmont is also the name of the company]. That region is called the “Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt” [LiAl(SiO3)2]. It is located along King’s Mountain at the North and South Carolina boundary just west of Charlotte. In fact, some of the largest reserves of lithium in the world are in America!
So when you look at your phone, turn on your computer, crank up your portable tools, or ride in a silently operating electric automobile, smile with the knowledge of advancing science. There is power in the elements. And there is a lot of storable power in that third rock from nothing!
But economics also drives science. Remember those old throwaway zinc batteries [alkaline batteries are powered by zinc and magnesium dioxide]? Lithium is expensive, and lithium batteries often contain flammable liquid electrolytes [remember the warning symbols on Amazon shipping boxes?].
Zinc is relatively cheap [30th Element in the Periodic Table, with 30 protons, 35 neutrons, and 30 electrons]. It is the fourth most used metal in industry and is often found in the mineral Sphalerite (zinc, iron, and sulphur). New rechargeable zinc batteries using “Zinc-air” technology are now being developed to increase energy storage in a zinc-based battery.
The electrolytes in a zinc-air battery are based in water mixed with alkaline chemicals. Cathodes can be made with porous carbon. Problems occur, however, in bursting cells [hydrogen generation again] and zinc metal deposition that reduces the rechargeability of the battery.
All of this technology is based on the basic chemistry that you learned in high school. Do you still have your high school Chemistry Book? I do. Celebrate your education as you watch this year’s 4th of July fireworks with the flashy red bursts of lithium on fire. There goes that single “S” orbital electron again!