What does your smartphone have in common with cooking utensils, an electric garage door, fireworks, Sherlock Holmes, and splitting the atom?
The element lithium.
What is lithium?
You won’t ever find a vein of pure lithium metal. This alkali metal is too reactive to stand alone. Cut its shiny surface with a knife, and lithium immediately darkens upon exposure to air.
Lithium occurs naturally in combination with other elements and minerals, especially silicates. Deposits are rather limited, but it is mined commercially from spodumene and other minerals. It can also be extracted from salt water – either brine or sea water.
Its nuclear structure is relatively unstable, although lithium isn’t radioactive. Scientists John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton were given a Nobel Prize for splitting a lithium atom into two atoms of helium in 1932 – the first time “splitting the atom” had ever been done.
It was the physics prize they received, not the Nobel Peace Prize.
What are some uses for lithium?
Among other things:
- Lithium-ion batteries in consumer electronics.
- Peaceful and military nuclear applications. In some types of nuclear reactor, lithium both supplies fuel and absorbs neutrons. In atomic weapons, lithium was the early favorite fuel for fusion bombs. They overdid it just a tad with the Castle Bravo shot, underestimating the reactions in one of the lithium isotopes that were used to build that bomb.
- Lithium oxide to process silica into glass and ceramics.
- Lithium grease to lubricate moving parts in things like vehicles and garage doors.
- Lithium compounds for mood-stabilizing drugs (actor Jeremy Brett, who gave what was arguably one of the best ever performances of the Sherlock Holmes character, took medicinal lithium).
- Red (and sometimes white) fireworks.
Is it safe?
Battery fires and explosions used to be big problems. Nowadays, a number of safeguards are built into lithium-ion batteries, and if you treat one responsibly (PDF), you shouldn’t have a problem.
As for environmental concerns, currently almost 70% of the world’s lithium mineral ore is mined in one place. A lot of lithium is also extracted from brine, which seems to be a rather green process, but opponents say (PDF) that the biggest brine deposits are in environmental fragile areas like the Andes and Tibet.
Lithium carbonate is a very useful mood-stabilizing medication, but Jeremy Brett’s tragic death showed the world how dangerous the drug can be.
It has many side effects, which vary from person to person, but lithium’s affect on the kidneys is well recognized. Drug interactions are also a concern. Basically, if you are taking lithium, stay on it and follow up closely with the doctor.
There are over-the-counter forms of lithium, like lithium aspartate and lithium orotate, but little to no research has been done on them. Some argue (PDF) such nutritional supplements can be hazardous.
The biggest nuclear bomb ever built was made with lithium. According to the Federation of American Scientists:
Lithium [Li] is a critical material for the manufacture of the secondaries of so-called dry thermonuclear devices, which do not require the use of liquid deuterium and tritium. The largest nuclear device ever detonated was a multi-stage Soviet product with a yield of nearly 60 megatons. It was exploded at only half of its design maximum yield of about 100 megatons.
Power plants are the peaceful side of lithium’s role in nuclear physics. However, the US government shut down the facilities to process lithium in the 1960s, when there was a surplus. That extra lithium has now been almost totally used up and modern facilities to start processing more don’t exist. A 2013 GAO report claims that this puts the electric power generation ability of 65 out of 100 US nuclear power plants “at some risk.”
Of course, as we have seen in Japan at Fukushima One, risk is relative when it comes to nuclear power.
Lithium is a little like that, too. It is powering some of your electronics right now, but the batteries have to be handled carefully. The Castle Bravo and Tsar Bomba blasts wouldn’t have happened without lithium…which also helps us handle otherwise crippling mental diseases.
Truly lithium is the great enabler, for good and for evil.