energy insights

What is Lithium?

Despite its distinguished resume of unique uses and characteristics, lithium existed in relative obscurity after its discovery by equally obscure Swedish scientist Johan August Arfwedson in 1817.

He was actually studying the mineral petalite, which was found on the Swedish island of Uto in the 1790s. Arfwedson’s serendipitous finding solidified his place in history, but it took more than a century for scientists to identify the benefits of lithium’s amazing qualities.

The name lithium comes from “lithos,” the Greek word for “stone,” but lithium is no rock, and it is anything but ordinary.

Light as a feather

Lithium, which is classified as an alkali metal, is among the lightest elements in the universe. Only hydrogen and helium have an atomic weight that is lighter than lithium. But lithium is a true lightweight – the lightest of all solid elements. Its density is comparable to pine wood. In a pure metal state, it can be cut with a knife and can literally float on water.

Lithium is plentiful, and can be found around the world, with the largest known lithium deposits in Australia and South America. The element does not occur in nature as a stand-alone element or metal. Instead, lithium easily binds to other elements to form mineral compounds, such as spodumene, petalite, lepidolite and amblygonite. Lithium can also be found in nearly all igneous rocks. The element can be produced from conventional mines, or it can be extracted from mineral-laden brine pumped from certain aquifers.

Despite all that distinguishes lithium, it has been overlooked through the ages, but times are changing.

Lithium used in medicine, technology

Lithium was first introduced as a treatment for bipolar disorder in 1949, helping many patients regain emotional stability, and over the years, the element has become one of the most effective medicines in psychiatry. The element also is used in aircraft, and within the past few decades, lithium’s unique electrochemical qualities have been key to development of advanced battery technology.

Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries have become mainstays for laptop computers, cell phones and an assortment of other digital devices that serve billions of people around the world, but demand for electric vehicles has put lithium on a new plain of social importance.

As the primary ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, lithium is now at the core of the worldwide electric vehicle revolution. As more nations mandate the transition from cars and trucks powered by internal combustion engines to electric vehicles, demand for lithium could outpace world production. However, extracting it from the earth is a little more complicated than scooping up a handful and dirt or pumping some groundwater. Plus there is the matter of economic feasibility.

That’s why experts are wondering if lithium, although plentiful on our planet, could someday end up in short supply.