Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal that belongs to the alkali metal group of chemical elements. It is represented by the symbol Li, and it has the atomic number 3. Under standard conditions it is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly reactive and flammable. Because of its high reactivity, lithium only appears naturally in the form of compounds. Lithium occurs in a number of pegmatitic minerals, and from brines and clays.
Lithium and its compounds have several industrial applications, including heat-resistant glass and ceramics, high strength-to-weight alloys used in aircraft, and lithium batteries, and because of its neurological effects, has pharmaceutical applications as a mood stabilizer in humans. Lithium also has important links to nuclear physics. The transmutation of lithium atoms to tritium was the first man-made form of a nuclear fusion reaction, and lithium deuteride serves as a fusion fuel in staged thermonuclear weapons.
The Next Strategic Material
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- Lightest of all metals – 3 times the energy density than nickel metal hydride batteries and one-third of the weight power.
- Highly reactive.
Chargeability and Operability
- Faster recharge than other metals and technologies.
- No memory effect.
- Up to 3,000 recharge cycles.
- Operates in extreme temperatures.
What is Driving the Demand?
- Emergence of electric vehicles (EV), electric hybrid vehicles (EHV) and plug-in electric vehicles (PEHV).
- By 2012, there will be a minimum of 25 EV, EHV and PEHV models powered by lithium-ion batteries.
- Container sized batteries for electric grid stabilization form other alternative energy sources (such as wind, solar and geothermal, etc.).
- Back up energy source for commercial, industrial and residential spaces.
- Continued growth in consumer electronic goods (such as mobile phone, computers, cameras, personal entertainment devices, etc.), glass and ceramics, greases and lubricants, heating ventilation and air conditioning devices, aluminum production, electric bicycles, scooters, power tools, wheelchairs, and water craft motors.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Petalite (LiAlSi4O10, which is lithium aluminum silicate) was first discovered in 1800 by the Brazilian chemist José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, who discovered this mineral in a mine on the island of Utö, Sweden. However, it was not until 1817 that Johan August Arfwedson, then working in the laboratory of the chemist Jöns Jakob Berzelius, detected the presence of a new element while analyzing petalite ore. This element formed compounds similar to those of sodium and potassium, though its carbonate and hydroxide were less soluble in water and more alkaline. Berzelius gave the alkaline material the name “lithos”, from the Greek word (translated as lithos, meaning “stone”), to reflect its discovery in a solid mineral, as opposed to sodium and potassium, which had been discovered in plant tissues. The name of this element was later standardized as “lithium”. Arfwedson later showed that this same element was present in the minerals spodumene and lepidolite.
Lithium was not isolated until 1821, when William Thomas Brande isolated the element by performing electrolysis on lithium oxide (Li2O). Brande also described some pure salts of lithium, such as the chloride, and he performed an estimate of its atomic weight. In 1855, larger quantities of lithium were produced through the electrolysis of lithium chloride by Robert Bunsen and Augustus Matthiessen. The discovery of this procedure henceforth led to commercial production of lithium metal, beginning in 1923, by the German company Metallgesellschaft AG, which performed an electrolysis of a liquid mixture of lithium chloride and potassium chloride.
The production and use of lithium underwent several changes in history. The first major application of lithium became high temperature grease for aircraft engines or similar applications in World War II and shortly after. This small market was supported by several mining operations mostly in the United States. The demand for lithium increased dramatically when in the beginning of the cold war the need for the production of nuclear fusion weapons arose and the dominant fusion material tritium had to be made by irradiating lithium-6. The United States became the prime producer of lithium in the period between the late 1950s and the mid 1980s. At the end the stockpile of lithium was roughly 42,000 tons of lithium hydroxide. The stockpiled lithium was depleted in lithium-6 by 75%.
Lithium was used to decrease the melting temperature of glass and to improve the melting behavior of aluminum oxide. These two uses dominated the market until the middle of the 1990s. After the end of the nuclear arms race the demand for lithium decreased and the sale of Department of Energy stockpiles on the open market further reduced prices. Then, in the mid 1990′s several companies started to extract lithium from brine. The use in lithium ion batteries increased the demand for lithium and became the dominant use in 2007. The emergence of electric hybrid and electric vehicles has further increased the demand for lithium.
Occurrence of Lithium
Lithium is widely distributed on Earth but does not naturally occur in elemental form due to its high reactivity. Estimates for crustal content range from 20 to 70 parts per million (ppm) by weight. Granitic pegmatites provide the greatest abundance of lithium-containing minerals, with spodumene and petalite being the most commercially viable sources. Other sources for lithium include hectorite clay and brines. The abundance of lithium in the Earth is comparable to nickel and lead.
Global Lithium Reserves By Country (2008)
|Global Lithium Reserves||USGS||Roskill Reserves|
|Reserves (tonnes Li)||Reserve base (tonnes Li)||(tonnes Li)|
|World Total (rounded)||4,141,000||11,467,000||28,048,500|
|Sources: USGS and Roskill 2008 Report|
Lithium has widespread applications. Rock Tech believes that the demand for lithium will grow, driven by developments and applications of fuel cells for electric hybrid and electric vehicles in the automotive industry, along with storage facilities for power generated through “clean energy” technologies. Because of its specific heat capacity, the highest of all solids, lithium is often used in coolants for heat transfer applications. Lithium has become extremely important as an anode material. Used in lithium-ion batteries because of its high electrochemical potential, a typical cell can generate approximately 3 volts, compared with 2.1 volts for lead/acid or 1.5 volts for zinc-carbon cells. Because of its low atomic mass, it also has a high charge-and power-to-weight ratio.
Application for lithium is extremely diverse. Some uses for lithium include:
- Light and high density rechargeable batteries for the electric and electric hybrid vehicles, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles.
- Rechargeable lithium-ion, lithium-ion polymer, lithium iron phosphate and the nanowire batteries and disposable lithium batteries that are used in electronic goods such as notebook computers, cell phones, portable personal entertainment devices.
- Telecommunications products for use in cell phones and optical modulators.
- All-purpose, high-temperature lubricant and lubricating greases.
- Flux for welding and soldering, promoting the fusing of metals and eliminating the formation of oxides by absorbing impurities, as well as for producing ceramics, enamels and glass.
- Alloys of the metal with aluminum, cadmium, copper and manganese are used to make high-performance aircraft parts.
- Focal lenses, including spectacles and the glass for telescopes.
- High energy additives to rocket propellants.
- Oxidizers in rocket propellants, and also in oxygen candles that supply submarines and space capsules with oxygen.
- Fusion fuel in early versions of the hydrogen bomb.
- Pharmaceutics as a mood stabilizer.