The Discovery of Lithium (Part 2)

Part one of this series examined the role Australian scientist John Cade (1912 – 1980) played in helping establish the drug lithium as the gold standard in the treatment of mentally ill patients from the 1950’s onward.

This second installment will unearth exactly what the substance known as lithium is and what it’s myriad of uses in today’s world are.

Lithium has been around since the very beginnings of the Universe. At the moment of the Big Bang, according to scientists, only three elements were at play – hydrogen, helium and lithium. In every single star and planet there is lithium.

In the modern context, lithium was ‘discovered’ in 1817. It’s distinction on the Periodic Table is it is the lightest of all the 91 metals listed. It is so light, in fact, it can float on water. It is also soft; soft enough that it can be cut with a kitchen knife.

Lithium is found in the world’s oceans at very low concentrations and is a naturally occurring trace element in the human body. A person weighing 70 kilograms has about half a gram of lithium residing in their body.

0.0007 percent of the Earth’s crust is composed of lithium. Lithium is only found in nature locked up in minerals and salts. In other words, when we speak of ‘lithium’ per se, we are most often actually referring to what in the science world is known as a compound ie. a mixture of two or more different substances. Lithium salts, lithium citrate and lithium carbonate are the three most often sold and prescribed forms of ‘lithium‘ serving as mood stabilizers in the pharmaceutical world today.

Everyone knows about lithium batteries but probably not that lithium is a lethal component of the hydrogen bomb. Lithium is used in the most astonishing variety of places. When you gaze upwards on New Years Eve and marvel at the incandescent pyrotechnics and the night sky turning blood-crimson, you are gazing at lithium burning in the heavens.

Lithium-based compounds are used in aircraft manufacture as well as the production of bicycle frames. As well, lithium is used in glass ceramics, air-conditioning units and industrial drying systems. Only 5 percent of all lithium production is devoted to medication.

As to the question, “Where do we get lithium from?” there are two main sources of lithium: mines and brine water. Over 80% of the world’s lithium comes from the brine water obtained from briny (salt) lakes.

As of 2019, the top three lithium producing countries were –

  • Australia – 51 000 metric tonnes
  • Chile – 16 000 metric tonnes
  • China – 8000 metric tonnes

Demand for lithium is expected to surge this current decade. This is being driven chiefly by the growing demand for lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries to supply the electric car market. As but one example, Tesla plans to produce 500,000 battery-powered vehicles per year by 2020, with batteries supplied by the company’s 13.6 million square foot “gigafactory” which, once completed, will be the world’s second largest building by volume.

Apple (believe it or not) will be competing directly with Tesla with its own electric car which is expected to be available in 2021, while the start-up Faraday Future is planning a new $1-billion factory in Las Vegas, and is hoping to produce its first car next year. All these battery factories will demand an estimated 100 000 tonnes of new lithium carbonate by 2021.

Economists have been forecasting a lithium economy for decades, and it may well be that someday every car, computer and wearable electronic device — not to mention our energy storehouses — will depend on lithium.

The next great frontier for lithium production is investigating ways in which the almost unlimited supply available in seawater (though as already stated, in very low concentrations) within the world’s oceans can be harnessed and mined. Currently there is considerable research and development taking place in this area.

** Attribution – The facts and research used to compile this article / conduct this inquiry assemble this… this…fact-riddled ‘thing’ were taken from a total of fourteen separate resources, all accessible via knowledge-seekers the world over’s best friend – the internet.

In our next installment we investigate the use of lithium’s application within the psychiatric domain. We delve into lithium’s past reputation as a general panacea for a variety of ills. And we attempt to answer the question “Was Australian scientist John Cade really the first to pioneer lithium’s use as a mood stabilizer?”

8 thoughts on “The Discovery of Lithium (Part 2)

  1. So interesting. I never thought much about lithium until you posted these articles. Thanks for doing the research and sharing what you learned in an entertaining way.


  2. I just hope this won’t be a case of borrowing from Paul to pay Peter.
    Like…how badly are we going to rape the earth for Lithium, especially when everybody’s shamed into only having electric cars…? Obviously won’t be as bad as the oil situation, but still, there has to be a way of taking from the earth but making sure not to deplete and also to replenish, you know?
    PS: “Negative drug interaction”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Discovery of Lithium – Part 3 | Scenic Writer's Shack

  4. Pingback: The Discovery of Lithium – Part 4 | Scenic Writer's Shack

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