Lithium is the lightest of the metals. Swedish chemist Johan August Arfwedson in 1817 detected a new element in a particular ore. The element behaved much like the alkali metals sodium and potassium. Four years later, the highly-reactive element was isolated.
In 1855, chemists Robert Bunsen and Augustus Matthessen demonstrated a feasible process of isolating lithium by electrolyzing lithium chloride. Much as in the case of aluminum, electrolysis proved to be the preferred method. Commercial production of lithium started in 1923.
Mining and Production
Lithium is not just mined in the traditional sense. Such a light and reactive metal can be found in ore deposits, but it is easily leached out and carried to the surface by geothermal water. Lithium salts are therefore also found in brine pools and mineral springs, particularly in South America. (Pictured: the salt flats of Bolivia.)
World production of lithium was about 36,000 tonnes in 2014, half from mining and half from brine. Chile and Australia are the largest producers.
Properties and Uses
Lithium is soft and silvery-white. It is the lightest metal and highly reactive. Lithium reacts with both air and water and so is typically stored in oil.
Lithium has a variety of industrial uses. Lithium oxide is used in producing glazes, such as the inside coating of ovens. As a flux in welding, lithium absorbs impurities
Lithium-ion batteries are receiving much attention. These rechargeable batteries (below) store significantly more energy than conventional lead-acid or nickel hydride batteries. Such batteries, though still expensive, have become the premium choice for use in electric vehicles. Unfortunately, the high energy density and the simple presence of lithium make safety a challenge. Several battery fires have occurred in airplanes and cars.