Lithium 101

What is Lithium?

Lithium is a chemical element with the symbol Li and atomic number 3. It is a soft, silver-white metal belonging to the alkali metal group of chemical elements. Under standard conditions, it is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly reactive and flammable. For this reason, it is typically stored in mineral oil. When cut open, it exhibits a metallic luster, but contact with moist air corrodes the surface quickly to a dull silvery gray, then black tarnish. Because of its high reactivity, lithium never occurs freely in nature, and instead, appears only in compounds, which are usually ionic. Lithium occurs in a number of pegmatitic minerals, is present in ocean water and is commonly obtained from brines and clays.

The nucleus of the lithium atom verges on instability, since the two stable lithium isotopes found in nature have among the lowestbinding energies per nucleon of all stable nuclides. Because of its relative nuclear instability, lithium is less common in the solar system than 25 of the first 32 chemical elements even though the nuclei are very light in atomic weight. For related reasons, lithium has important links to nuclear physics. The transmutation of lithium atoms to helium in 1932 was the first fully man-made nuclear reaction, and lithium-6 deuteride serves as a fusion fuel in staged thermonuclear weapons.

Lithium and its compounds have several industrial applications, including heat-resistant glass and ceramics, lithium greaselubricants, flux additives for iron, steel and aluminium production, lithium batteries, and lithium-ion batteries. These uses consume more than three quarters of lithium production.

Lithium Applications

Although lithium markets vary by location, global end-use markets are estimated as follows: batteries, 35%; ceramics and glass, 32%; lubricating greases, 9%; air treatment and continuous casting mold flux powders, 5% each; polymer production, 4%; primary aluminum production, 1%; and other uses, 9%. Other uses include agrochemicals, alloys, cement and concrete additives, dyes and pigments, industrial bleaching and sanitation products, organic synthesis, pharmaceuticals, pool chemicals, and welding. Lithium minerals were used directly as ore concentrates in ceramics and glass applications worldwide.