Lithium is unlike any other metal on the periodic table. Given that it has uses in manufacturing items like aircraft due to its unusual lightness, but that it has psychological benefits as well, Lithium may actually be one of the most versatile materials in existence.
Toxic but Tolerable
When isolated, Lithium is a metal, but that’s not how you’ll find it in nature. Instead, Lithium is present in almost all igneous rocks, as well as mineral spring water. On its own, Lithium has the lowest density of all metals, which makes it an ideal choice for crafting structures that must keep their weight low.
Lithium is often combined with other metals to create alloys that are stronger, as it is a very soft metal—you can cut right through it with a knife.
Oddly enough given its toxicity (in anything other than very low doses), Lithium has long been used for its medicinal properties; Lithium does not have a known biological function, but humans have certainly made the most out of this toxic metal.
Crimson Fire and 60 Years
The element Lithium was unwittingly discovered in the 1790s by a Brazilian naturalist when he discovered the mineral Petalite in Sweden. When thrown into a fire, Petalite burns crimson due to the presence of Lithium; Lithium can also react quite violently with water when isolated, but no one realized it was a new element for another 20 or so years.
In 1817, Johan Augustus Arfwedson realized that Petalite contained an unknown element. He tried (unsuccessfully) to isolate the metal, but wound up only isolating one of its salts. He named it Lithium for the Greek “lithos” meaning stone.
Lithium was finally isolated in its metallic form in 1855 through the use of electrolysis. As stated before, Lithium doesn’t exist in its purest form naturally, and even though it is present in many rocks, it only makes up about .0007% of the Earth’s crust.
The largest Lithium source is brine pools, and Chile has the largest extraction operation in the world. Of course, Lithium is also extracted all over the world, from Australia and China to the United States.
Recharging in More Ways Than One
When alloyed with other metals, Lithium is a useful material for making aircraft. Common alloys are aluminum and copper, but perhaps its best known uses are in batteries and brains.
If you have a smartphone or a laptop, you probably have lithium-ion battery in it. They key to Lithium’s success as a battery component is certainly its weight—it allows for rechargeable function without weighing down the device. As demand for these devices increases, there are some concerns that Lithium will become scarce, but this remains largely a contrived fear.
Lithium Carbonate (Li2CO3) has also been found to treat Bipolar Disorder and depression when taken orally. This backs up a 2009 study that found Lithium in drinking water correlated with lower rates of suicide. Scientists believe that Lithium acts on the brain by inhibiting a protein that causes avoidance behavior, but the reason for its effects remain largely a mystery.
Eat Your Vegetables, Drink Your Lithium
Given Lithium’s mood stabilizing effects, it should come as no surprise that it wasn’t always just a prescription. Around the same time that Coca-Cola was adding cocaine to their product, 7-Up (then called Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon Lime Sodas) incorporated Lithium into there’s.
The practice was banned in 1948, but 7-Up had already become one of the country’s favorite soft drinks.
Lithium may be a little combative when combined with water or air on its own, but the metal has so many uses and benefits, that fact is easily forgiven.