5 Incredible Facts About Lithium
The word lithium comes from the Greek word ‘lithos,’ which means stone. The element, which is found combined in small amounts in nearly all igneous rocks and in the waters of many mineral springs, is the third element in the periodic table, with three protons and an atomic mass of 6.941.
Lithium was first isolated in the mineral petalite by Johan August Arfvedson in 1817, who recognized the presence of a new alkali metal and a lighter version of sodium. In 1855, German chemist Robert Bunsen and British chemist Augustus Matthiessen were able to isolate a larger amount of lithium through the process of electrolysis of molten lithium chloride.
Today, more than half of the world’s lithium supply comes from the “lithium triangle” which includes Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. It is most well-known as an important component of lithium-ion batteries, which power many modern devices including computers, cell phones, and even electric vehicles.
Keep reading for 5 more incredible facts about this crucial element from the Kinvestor Network.
1. Lithium’s Unique Properties
Lithium is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element, with a density of about half that of water, which means that, in theory, if placed in water it would float. However, as an alkali metal, lithium reacts quickly with air and violently with water (other alkali metals include sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium). In fact, pure lithium in its metallic form is so corrosive that it requires special handling, and is usually stored under oil or kept in an inert atmospheric chamber.
2. Old as the Universe Itself
While the scientific world has only known of the existence of lithium since the 19th century, lithium is believed to be one of the oldest elements in the universe. Scientists believe that the element, along with hydrogen and helium, was one of only three elements that were produced by the big bang in the first three minutes of the universe’s existence. The theory was confirmed in 2013 when astrophysicists witnessed the explosion of Nova Centauri.
3. Revolutionizing Battery Metals
Because of its low density and extremely low electrode potential, lithium is an ideal anode material for high-voltage and high-energy batteries. Lithium-ion batteries contain no actual lithium metal, but are made using lithium ions. Despite being lighter than most other types of batteries made of heavier metals like nickel-cadmium batteries, they have a much higher energy density than other batteries. This means that they start with up to 150 watt-hours of energy per kilogram, much higher than nickel-metal batteries with 60-70 watt-hours per kilogram and lead acid batteries at 25 watt-hours per kilogram.
The story of lithium-ion batteries began in the 1970s, when scientists discovered a use for its high-energy properties despite its high reactivity. They were first produced commercially by Sony in the 1990s, and now power our cell phones, electronic devices, and vehicles. And while lithium-ion batteries are currently more expensive to produce than other batteries, the industry is developing ways to lower costs while creating better technology for the future of electric vehicles and devices.
4. Made for Electric Vehicles
Lithium-ion batteries are currently the dominant technology for electric vehicles. Typical electric vehicle lithium-ion batteries contain lithium, cobalt, and nickel in the cathode, graphite in the anode, and aluminum and copper in other cell and pack components.
Because of their much greater watt-hours per kilogram, lithium-ion batteries made for electric vehicles can last up to 20 years before needing to be replaced, which is longer than some of the cars they are powering will last. Some believe, this longevity, along with advancements in AI technology and safety, means that electric vehicles could be as easily accessible and on par in terms of price as conventional cars as early as the mid-2020s.
5. Strong Demand for the Future
While global lithium reserves remain strong, demand for lithium-ion electric vehicle batteries continues to grow as governments make a push for cleaner, greener forms of energy and transportation. Major car manufacturers like General Motors and Audi have announced plans to stop selling gas- and diesel-powered vehicles by the 2030s, hoping to meet the consumer demand for electric vehicles. According to consulting company Stormcrow Capital, demand for lithium used in electric vehicle batteries could outpace production by 2023 at the current pace.
Engineers in electric vehicle technologies have identified two challenges for the future of lithium-ion batteries. First is the challenge of cutting down on battery metals that are more scarce, like cobalt, expensive, or problematic because of the way they are mined. Lithium itself is not scarce, with current world reserves estimated to be at 21 million tonnes, according to the US Geological Survey, enough to carry the conversion to electric vehicles through to the mid-21st century.
There is hope, however. Researchers are working to develop ways to recycle used lithium-ion batteries as less than 3 per cent of lithium-ion batteries around the world are currently recycled. One researcher, an assistant professor at the University of California San Diego, is working on developing a way to recycle used cathodes from used batteries and restore them to their original capacity. It is advancements like these that will carry the demand for lithium and lithium-ion batteries into the future of electric vehicles as we strive to create a cleaner, greener planet.
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