Lithium - History of Discovery and Use

History of Discovery and Use

Petalite (LiAlSi4O10) was discovered in 1800 by the Brazilian chemist and statesman José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva in a mine on the island of Utö, Sweden. However, it was not until 1817 that Johan August Arfwedson, then working in the laboratory of the chemist Jöns Jakob Berzelius, detected the presence of a new element while analyzing petalite ore. This element formed compounds similar to those of sodium and potassium, though its carbonate and hydroxide were less soluble in water and more alkaline. Berzelius gave the alkaline material the name "lithion/lithina", from the Greek word λιθoς (transliterated as lithos, meaning "stone"), to reflect its discovery in a solid mineral, as opposed to potassium, which had been discovered in plant ashes, and sodium which was known partly for its high abundance in animal blood. He named the metal inside the material "lithium".

Arfwedson later showed that this same element was present in the minerals spodumene and lepidolite. In 1818, Christian Gmelin was the first to observe that lithium salts give a bright red color to flame. However, both Arfwedson and Gmelin tried and failed to isolate the pure element from its salts. It was not isolated until 1821, when William Thomas Brande obtained it by electrolysis of lithium oxide, a process that had previously been employed by the chemist Sir Humphry Davy to isolate the alkali metals potassium and sodium. Brande also described some pure salts of lithium, such as the chloride, and, estimating that lithia (lithium oxide) contained about 55% metal, estimated the atomic weight of lithium to be around 9.8 g/mol (modern value ~6.94 g/mol). In 1855, larger quantities of lithium were produced through the electrolysis of lithium chloride by Robert Bunsen and Augustus Matthiessen. The discovery of this procedure henceforth led to commercial production of lithium, beginning in 1923, by the German company Metallgesellschaft AG, which performed an electrolysis of a liquid mixture of lithium chloride and potassium chloride.

The production and use of lithium underwent several drastic changes in history. The first major application of lithium was in high-temperature lithium greases for aircraft engines or similar applications in World War II and shortly after. This use was supported by the fact that lithium-based soaps have a higher melting point than other alkali soaps, and are less corrosive than calcium based soaps. The small market for lithium soaps and the lubricating greases based upon them was supported by several small mining operations mostly in the United States.

The demand for lithium increased dramatically during the Cold War with the production of nuclear fusion weapons. Both lithium-6 and lithium-7 produce tritium when irradiated by neutrons, and are thus useful for the production of tritium by itself, as well as a form of solid fusion fuel used inside hydrogen bombs in the form of lithium deuteride. The United States became the prime producer of lithium in the period between the late 1950s and the mid 1980s. At the end, the stockpile of lithium was roughly 42,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide. The stockpiled lithium was depleted in lithium-6 by 75%, which was enough to affect the measured atomic weight of lithium in many standardized chemicals, and even the atomic weight of lithium in some "natural sources" of lithium ion which had been "contaminated" by lithium salts discharged from isotope separation facilities, which had found its way into ground water.

Lithium was used to decrease the melting temperature of glass and to improve the melting behavior of aluminium oxide when using the Hall-Héroult process. These two uses dominated the market until the middle of the 1990s. After the end of the nuclear arms race the demand for lithium decreased and the sale of Department of Energy stockpiles on the open market further reduced prices. But in the mid-1990s, several companies started to extract lithium from brine which proved to be a less expensive method than underground or even open-pit mining. Most of the mines closed or shifted their focus to other materials as only the ore from zoned pegmatites could be mined for a competitive price. For example, the US mines near Kings Mountain, North Carolina closed before the turn of the 21st century.

The use in lithium ion batteries increased the demand for lithium and became the dominant use in 2007. With the surge of lithium demand in batteries in the 2000s, new companies have expanded brine extraction efforts to meet the rising demand.

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