In 1817, an aging Swedish chemist was pouring over his work on a late afternoon in Stockholm, Sweden. He was analyzing a strange ore named Petalite that had been procured from an island off the coast of Sweden called Uto. The ore Petalite (which is now recognized to be LiAl(Si2O5)2) had been discovered by a Brazilian scientist, Jose Bonifacio de Andrada e Silva towards the end of the 18th century on a visit to Sweden. This Swedish scientist, Johann August Arfvedson, detected traces of an unknown substance in his sample of Petalite. This was the first discovery of Lithium.
From the Greek word “lithos” meaning “stone”, it was so named due to the fact that it was discovered from a mineral source; whereas the other two common Group 1 elements, Sodium and Potassium, were found in plant sources. Its symbol, Li, was taken directly from its name. Soon after stumbling upon Lithium, Arfvedson also found traces of the metal in the minerals Spodumene and Lepidolite. In 1818, C.G. Gmelin discovered that Lithium salts color flames a bright red. Neither, Gmelin or Arfvedson, however, were able to isolate the element itself from the Lithium salts. They both tried to reduce the oxide by heating it with Iron or Carbon, but neither met with the success of W.T. Brande and Sir Humphrey Davy. They managed to perform the first isolation of elemental Lithium by the electrolysis of Lithium oxide. Electrolysis is a chemical reaction, which is brought about by the passage of current from an external energy source such as a battery. In 1855, the scientists Bunsen and Mattiessen isolated larger quantities of the metal by electrolysis of Lithium chloride.
Each scientist or team of scientists had so much trouble reducing the Lithium compounds because Lithium does not exist in its elemental form in nature. It combines very easily with other elements. Lithium is a soft silvery-white lustrous metal, which can be easily cut with a knife, and it is the lightest of all known metals. It is highly reactive with water and air, and tarnishes readily when exposed to the latter due to a formation of a layer of Lithium suboxide on its surface. Because of its high rate of reaction to air, it must be stored under liquid paraffin, oil, or kerosene, which contain no air, to prevent oxidation. Lithium is detected in its compounds by the characteristic red coloration that it imparts to flames when burned, as Gmelin detected, and by spectroscopic methods.
The element Lithium and its compounds are used in hundreds of different ways. Lithium carbonate has been found highly beneficial to several mental disorders, the most common being manic depressive disorder. It is also used in making very durable glasses and enamels. Lithium hydroxide is used as an absorber of Carbon dioxide in closed environments such as spacecrafts and submarines, as well as a main ingredient in many specialty greases and lubricants due to its high resistance to water and its usefulness at extremely high and low temperatures. Lithium urate is used in the medical treatment of gout, since it is one of the few soluble salts of uric acid. In addition, Lithium is used as an alloy with aluminum, manganese, and cadmium to create high-performance materials for spacecrafts, to manufacture strong railroad car bearings in Europe, as an ingredient in various nuclear applications, to create battery anode material and in dry cell and storage batteries (cell phones, etc), and recent studies have shown that small traces of Lithium are a very important nutrient to the human body. Due to the importance that the metal is kept entirely free of air and water while reduced, packed, shipped, and stored for commercial uses, the element can be significantly expensive.
In the early 1950’s, when Lithium was first discovered as a method of treatment for patients with mental disorders, doctors started to prescribe very high dosages of the new “wonder” drug, Lithium carbonate. It became evident to the patients, doctors, and public that those patients on Lithium carbonate were experiencing some very serious side effects including vomiting, tremors, drowsiness, excessive urination, abdominal pain, skin eruptions, hallucinations, seizures, and in extreme cases, even a coma. This led to the need for doctors to closely monitor the blood-lithium levels of their patients, but the public remained scared. In spite of the very obvious difference between a trace element found in nature and a high dosage drug, many people became confused with the simple trace element “lithium” and the prescription drug “lithium carbonate”. Lithium is found particularly in igneous rocks, and is therefore found more abundantly in many mineral springs, artesian wells, and certain desert inland seas. People became frightened that if they continued to drink water from these sources or consume food from the family Solanaceae (which is high in Lithium), such as tomatoes, tobacco, potatoes, and green peppers, they would experience the same side effects first observed with the usage of the drug in mental patients. As an effort to relieve the qualms of the public, scientists began to perform studies on the effects of Lithium on people and animals. They found that Lithium improves glucose intake into cells, bone growth, and fertility, aids in treating sodium imbalances, and reduces hypertension in hypertensive patients. Lithium was even found to prevent the occurrence of cavities! A five-year study was performed on the effects of the amount of Lithium in an area’s water and that same area’s admission rate to mental institutions and its rates of homicide, suicide, rape, and theft. It was found that areas where the residents were exposed to little or no Lithium, the admission rates were much higher than normal and that re-admissions were even more common. The research also showed an increase in homicides, suicides, rapes, and thefts over areas where the people ingested just one-fiftieth the amount prescribed to the most moderate mental patient. They also found that Lithium could control episodic outbreaks of rage among prisoners, suppress cocaine-induced hypersensitivity reactions, and prevent behavioral alterations due to social isolation and confinement.
Some basic information about Lithium is as follows. Lithium’s Atomic Number is 3, its Atomic Mass is 6.941 amu, its melting point is 180.54 degrees Celsius, its boiling point is 1347.0 degrees Celsius, its number of Protons and Electrons is 3, its number of neutrons is 4, its classification is an Alkali Metal, its Crystal structure is cubic-centered, and its density is 0.53 g/cm3 (@ 293 K).