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Facts About Lithium: Properties and Uses

Fascinated with metals Nithya Venkat enjoys reading and writing about metals present on Earth.

Lithium floating in oil

Lithium floating in oil

Lithium is a silvery-white alkali metal that can be found in small quantities in rocks. It does not occur in its elemental form, but it can be found as a component of minerals and salts present in rocks and brine water in the oceans.

The name Lithium is derived from the Greek word “Lithos,” meaning stone. In 1817 Johan August Arfwedson discovered Lithium from a Swedish iron mine. He found Lithium in the petalite ore and minerals such as spodumene and lepidolite.

Even though Arfwedson discovered Lithium, he was not able to isolate Lithium from the mineral salts. William Thomas Brande and Sir Humphry Davy who isolated lithium through electrolysis of lithium oxide in 1818.

Properties of Lithium

Lithium in the pure form is an element belonging to the alkali group of metals. It is represented by the symbol “Li” and has an atomic number 3 with an atomic weight of 6.941. It has a melting point of 179 degrees Centigrade and a boiling point of 1,317 degrees Centigrade.

The lithium element is silvery-white in color and so soft that it can be cut with a knife. It reacts strongly with water and air.

When Lithium is exposed to air, it reacts with oxygen in the air, forms lithium oxide, and turns into a blackish-gray color. Therefore, it has to be stored in mineral oil to prevent such oxidation.

When a piece of Lithium is added to water, it floats on water because it is less dense than water, and at the same time, it reacts vigorously with water producing hydrogen gas and lithium hydroxide. Lithium hydroxide dissolves in water, and the hydrogen gas escapes into the air.

This metal has a very low density of 0.534 g/cm cubed and can float in hydrocarbon oils. It is the least dense of all solids under standard conditions.

Lithium is highly flammable and bursts into crimson colored flames when thrown into the fire.

Fires involving Lithium are difficult to put out and require Class D Fire Extinguishers. Class D Fire Extinguishers use powders to put out fires involving metals highly combustible such as lithium, magnesium, sodium, and aluminum.

Salt water left to evaporate

Salt water left to evaporate

Extraction of Lithium

Lithium is most commonly found in combination with aluminum, silicon, and oxygen forming minerals called spodumene or petalite/castorite.

Extraction from Minerals

The mineral forms of Lithium are heated to a high temperature in the range between 1200K to 1300K to crumble them. After this process, any one of the following three methods is used to extract Lithium.

1. Sulfuric acid and sodium carbonate are used to precipitate iron and aluminum from the ore, then sodium carbonate is applied to the remaining material thereby allowing the lithium to precipitate in the form of lithium carbonate. This is then treated with hydrochloric acid to form lithium chloride.

2. Limestone is used to calcinate the ore and then leached with water forming lithium hydroxide. This lithium hydroxide is treated with hydrochloric acid to form lithium chloride.

3. Sulfuric acid is added to the crumbled ore and then leached with water forming lithium sulfate monohydrate. This is treated first with sodium carbonate to form lithium carbonate and then treated with hydrochloric acid to form lithium chloride.

The lithium chloride obtained from the above three methods is subject to an oxidation-reduction reaction in an electrolytic cell to separate the chloride ions from the lithium ions.

Extraction from Salt Water

Saltwater bodies, also known as brines, contain lithium chloride, which is extracted in the form of lithium carbonate. Briny lakes, also known as salars, have the highest concentration of lithium. The salars with the highest concentration of lithium are situated in Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile.

Saltwater is let into shallow ponds and allowed to evaporate for over a year or more. The water evaporates, leaving behind lithium and other salts. Lime is used to remove the magnesium salt, and the solution is then treated with sodium carbonate so that lithium carbonate can be precipitated out of the solution.

Atomic Structure of Lithium

Atomic Structure of Lithium

Why Lithium is Highly Reactive

In an atom, the electrons spin around the central nucleus in separate shells, also known as orbitals. Shell number one can hold two electrons, shell two and three can hold a maximum of eight electrons. When one shell is full, the electrons that are further added occupy the next shell.

In the above diagram, the pink circle represents the first shell, the blue circle represents the second shell, and the green circle represents the third shell.

The atomic number of a Lithium atom is three that means that there are three electrons in a Lithium atom.

There are two electrons in the first shell and only one electron in the second shell, and no electrons in the third shell.

Lithium is highly reactive because of its electron configuration. Lithium has a single valence electron in the second shell that is easily released to create bonds and form new compounds.

For example, two atoms of Lithium bond with one atom of oxygen to form Lithium oxide. One atom of Lithium bonds with one atom of fluorine to form Lithium fluoride.

Uses of Lithium

Lithium metal in the pure form and its derivatives have many uses in manufacturing industries and in the field of medicine.

1. Lithium Hydroxide is used as a thickening agent to manufacture greases that are used as lubricants for industrial applications.

2. Lithium is used in the manufacture of batteries and rechargeable batteries, especially for electronic gadgets. Lithium ions have a high capacity to store energy, and this property makes lithium highly suitable in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries. Even though Lithium batteries are lightweight and have a high capacity to store electrical energy, it is highly flammable.

3. The solid form of Lithium Hydroxide is used to absorb carbon dioxide in the space shuttles where astronauts live. Lithium Hydroxide absorbs the carbon dioxide and releases oxygen into the surrounding air, thereby refreshing the air that the astronauts breathe.

4. Lithium is used as a coolant in nuclear reactors. Li-7 (Lithium-7) is used to reduce the corrosion in the steam generators of the nuclear reactors.

5. Lithium Chloride is a solid substance that has an enormous capacity to hold water; this property of lithium chloride makes it useful for air-conditioning purposes and as an antifreeze agent.

6. Lithium is used in the manufacture of aluminum, magnesium, and lead alloys. The addition of lithium helps to make the alloy lighter and more stable.

7. Lithium is used as an alloying agent to synthesize organic compounds.

8. It is used as a flux to facilitate the fusing of metals during welding and soldering. Lithium is also used as a flux in the manufacture of ceramics, enamels, and glass.

9. Alloys of Lithium with aluminum, cadmium, copper, and manganese are used to make aircraft parts.

10. Lithium is used in the treatment of a bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, and for treating eating and blood disorders.








Questions & Answers

Question: How is lithium used in the renewable energy sector?

Answer: Lithium-ion batteries have a high electrochemical potential and energy density when compared to other batteries. This makes lithium-ion batteries the most efficient solution for the storage of renewable energy and as a source for mobile power.

© 2018 Nithya Venkat


Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on April 02, 2020:

Thank you, JC Scull.

JC Scull from Gainesville, Florida on March 31, 2020:

Excellent read!!!

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on July 29, 2019:

Sherry Haynes thank you for your visit and comment.

Sherry Haynes on July 29, 2019:

Thanks for sharing this information Nithya. It was an interesting read.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on November 11, 2018:

Thank you Nell Rose.

Nell Rose from England on November 05, 2018:

How fascinating! I always thought lithium was just a drug to help depression etc! I am so surprised! very interesting stuff thanks Nithya.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on September 15, 2018:

manatita thank you.

manatita44 from london on September 15, 2018:

Useful article on lithium and its many properties. Yes, I know of its uses in Nuclear reactors and the fact that it is highly flammable. Thank you for this informative article.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 04, 2018:

Thanks for sharing such a detailed article about lithium, Nithya. It's great to read so much information about an element.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on August 25, 2018:

FlourishAnyway thank you.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on August 25, 2018:

Thank you Peggy.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 24, 2018:

Now I understand why lithium batteries have to be removed from cameras before taking them on airplanes. Interesting information about the metal and it’s uses, especially it’s flammability.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 24, 2018:

This was a most informative article. Thanks for listing the many uses of lithium. I learned much from reading your article.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on August 24, 2018:

Thank you Bill.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on August 24, 2018:

Thank you Venkat.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 23, 2018:

I always love informational articles like this one. Thank you for the information.

Venkat on August 22, 2018:

Even though I am a metallurgist, still gathered a lot of info I did not know earlier about Li . Great work

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on August 22, 2018:

Thank you Eric Dierker.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on August 22, 2018:

Thank you Mary Norton.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 22, 2018:

Really cool stuff. What an interesting substance. Thanks for sharing this.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on August 22, 2018:

I never realized that lithium has so many more uses than just batteries. It is good to know what its sources are.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on August 22, 2018:

Thank you Alexander James Guckenberger.

Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on August 21, 2018:

This is awesome. Chemistry. :)