10 Facts About Lithium

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Lithium is one of the smallest, simplest, and oldest elements, but it has been tapped to unlock some big, messy problems. It's a key ingredient in the batteries that power smartphones, laptops, and electric cars. But it's also proven to be one of the most effective treatments for bipolar disorder, and recent research may make lithium the key to unlocking the causes of that illness.

1. THE MAN WHO DISCOVERED LITHIUM GAVE UP SCIENCE SOON AFTER.

crimson flames
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In 1800, Brazilian naturalist José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva discovered petalite, a rare gem-quality mineral found in granite, on the island of Utö, Sweden. He found that the rock had a strange quality: When thrown into a fire, it created intense crimson flames. In 1817, a 25-year-old Swedish aristocrat-turned-chemist named Johan August Arfvedson discovered lithium while analyzing petalite. Arfvedson identified the culprit for the red flames by process of elimination: Having recognized most of the mineral's content as silica and aluminum, he deduced a new alkali metal made up the remaining share. It was Arfvedson's only recorded discovery; he soon retired from chemistry to manage his inherited fortune.

Lithium was later isolated in its elemental metal form using electricity. That process, electrolysis, is still used in lithium production.

2. LITHIUM IS BORN IN STELLAR EXPLOSIONS—WHICH WE ONLY LEARNED IN 2013.

Hydrogen, helium, and lithium, the first three elements in the periodic table, were all created in the Big Bang, but the first two elements are abundant, and lithium is not. Astrophysicists had a theory that novae, or stellar explosions, were responsible for lithium's scant distribution in the universe, but they didn't have data for how that worked until Nova Centauri's December 2013 explosion—visible to the naked eye, if your eyes were in the southern hemisphere. Researchers witnessed the dying star ejecting lithium into space.

3. ITS SOURCES ARE LIMITED.

atacama salt flats in chile
Francesco Mocellin, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

More than half of the world's lithium supply comes from high-altitude lakes and bright white salt flats in the "lithium triangle" in Bolivia, Chile (as seen above), and Argentina, where it's mined in a grid of brine pools. In other regions, it comes from open-pit mines spiraling into layers of earth. Deposits have also been found in Australia, in the Tibetan portion of China, and in the U.S. in North Carolina and Nevada. Between 2015 and 2016, the price per ton of the commodity more than tripled, leading the UK to search for domestic supplies. At the current pace, according to consulting company Stormcrow Capital, demand for lithium could outpace production by 2023. To get around this looming shortage, some researchers are developing ways to recycle used lithium-ion batteries.

4. LITHIUM IS NEVER FOUND ALONE.

fragment of petalite
Eurico Zimbres, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Lithium doesn't range freely through nature, but instead has to be isolated from other minerals. Often, it's sourced from petalite (above). It's found in traces in almost all igneous rocks and in many mineral springs. Those who swim in lithium-infused hot springs are often told that it has curative powers, including improved brain function and elevated mood—though there's no evidence of this.

5. IT POWERS MANY OF YOUR DEVICES.

Lithium has several advantages that make it the go-to for powering everything from smartphones to hybrid cars. It's the lightest known metal, which means it can store power without adding a lot of weight to devices. Lithium-ion batteries also have some of the highest energy densities of any current battery technology; they deliver three times the voltage of nickel-based batteries, according to the University of Washington's Clean Energy Institute.

But those aren't lithium's only advantages. Many nickel-based batteries experience what's known as the "memory effect"—if they're repeatedly plugged in to charge before they're fully dead, they'll lose power capacity (so instead of remembering its full capacity, the battery will only remember half, for example). But that's not the case with lithium-ion batteries, which are believed to have no memory effect.

6. IT'S KEY TO IMPROVING ELECTRIC VEHICLES …

Current electric vehicle models require recharging after around 300 miles of driving. Given the limited number of re-charging stations available around the nation, that could make for tough logistics on cross-country road trips. So the Department of Energy is funding battery research to improve that range and has recruited five universities, three national laboratories, and IBM to the Battery500 Consortium to develop smaller, lighter, more efficient batteries that could, among other potential uses, increase the range of electric cars.

"If we're successful, we'll be able to double the range of electronic vehicles today. This by itself is extremely challenging," says Jihui Yang, chair of the University of Washington's department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Yang and his collaborators aim to replace the graphite currently used in the negative electrode of lithium-ion batteries with lithium metal. Doubling the use of lithium would significantly increase the power output of those batteries. To do so, though, they'll have to solve a big problem: In the all-lithium batteries that currently exist, lithium grows needle-like dendrites that can puncture the separator—a thin layer of porous polymer separating the negative and positive sides of a battery—causing the battery to short.

7. … AND HAS SET PLANES AND PHONES ON FIRE.

samsung galaxy 7 phone and recall notice
George Frey/Getty Images

Battery shorts can be more than just annoying—they can be incendiary. Some Boeing airplanes use lithium-ion batteries to power up their jet engines, and the quickly recharged batteries then serve as a backup power supply for electrical systems. But the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the entire Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet in 2013 after one plane's lithium-ion battery shorted out and started a fire—shortly after passengers had disembarked in Boston—and a battery malfunction warning went off in another plane.

Tesla Model S cars also saw fires in 2013 attributed to battery malfunctions. Then the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones started catching fire, prompting the FAA to ban the phones from flights. Samsung had tried to boost battery capacity to accommodate consumers' increasing game-playing and video-streaming habits while also shrinking the phone. Tasked with doing more in a smaller size, it became prone to meltdowns.

There's a reason why the batteries are so combustible. Lithium ions pass through the tiny holes in the separator between the positive and negative electrodes of the battery, carried by a liquid electrolyte solution. But if the separator is damaged—like by dropping your phone—or the chemistry underway is changed by the heat of recharging or sitting in the sun, the equation changes. The outputs of those changed chemical reactions include flammable gases, and lithium itself can also ignite in humid air. The Federal Aviation Administration now requires spare rechargeable lithium batteries be transported in carry-on baggage. If a fire from a cell phone or laptop battery starts on board, the FAA has advised flight attendants to use water or soda to extinguish it, though a foam extinguisher or dry chemical fire extinguisher can also be used.

8. IT'S USED TO TREAT MENTAL ILLNESSES …

Lithium has been used for more than a century to treat bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, and eating disorders. It's also used to treat anemia, headaches, alcoholism, epilepsy, and diabetes. But there's a narrow difference between the dose at which it's effective and the one at which it is lethal.

"It's not that people don't know what lithium does in general, the problem is that it does too many things," says Evan Snyder, a professor in the human genetics program with Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, who studied the disorder as part of research on defects that involve more than one abnormal gene. He likens prescribing lithium to using a sledgehammer on a nail; there's a lot of collateral damage. "What we'd like is a very tiny, mini hammer just to precisely hit exactly what it is that lithium is doing," he tells Mental Floss.

But first, scientists needed to know which nail to swing for, and for that, Snyder studied lithium's affects in the brain. Research Snyder published in 2017 details how the drug works to regulate connections in the brain's nerve cells. Now, he says, that effect can be compared with other drugs to search for a more targeted treatment; right now, it works on only one out of every three patients.

9. … BUT THERE CAN BE LONG-TERM SIDE EFFECTS.

At age 17, Jaime Lowe believed her parents were secret agents, saw the Muppets heckling her, and thought she could converse with Michael Jackson and follow secret tunnels to Neverland. She was soon diagnosed as bipolar, and daily doses of lithium stabilized the manic episodes; without it, as she wrote in a New York Times essay about her life on the drug, she'd be "riding on top of subway cars measuring speed and looking for light in elevated realms." About one-third of people with bipolar disorder see their symptoms relieved by lithium.

But that can come at a price. Lithium's side effects include weight gain, nausea, and the exacerbation of heart and kidney disease. In Lowe's case, after 20 years of taking the drug, she began to have spiking blood pressure and other signs of kidney failure. Her doctor gave her a choice between switching off the drug that had given her a functional life—or getting a kidney transplant. She chronicles the experience—and her trip to Bolivia to hike the salt flats where lithium is mined—in her 2017 book Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind.

10. LITHIUM WAS ONCE A KEY INGREDIENT IN 7 UP.

7 Up ad featuring family in 1948 issue of Ladies' Home Journal magazine
Internet Archive, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

Before "7 Up" became its name and holiday party punchbowls everywhere became its prime target, the soft drink, which debuted in 1929, was briefly called "Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda," and its original ingredients included lithium citrate. To make its product stand out in a sea of 600 lemon-lime soft drinks already on the market, Cadbury Beverages North America touted the supposedly positive health effects of the lithium in the soda, which was released just weeks before the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. Apparently the recipe had some appeal: In the 1940s: 7 Up was the third best-selling soft drink in the world, according to Cadbury. (Look how happy the family above seems in this ad from the March 1948 issue of The Ladies' Home Journal.) Lithium was included in its recipe until 1950.

8 Facts About Silver

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Subtle silver gets pushed aside next to gold, but in many ways it outranks its lustrous competition. The cool-toned element is more conductive and more reflective, and boasts properties absent in other metals, like a reaction with light that put the “silver” in “silver screen.” Read on for more.

1. HUMAN USE OF SILVER DATES BACK TO 3000 BCE.

Archeological records show humans have mined and used silver (or Ag, number 47 on the periodic table) for at least 5000 years. Silver shows up in slag heaps at ancient mines in Turkey and Greece, as well as in deposits in China, Korea, Japan, and South America. Its visible shine made it popular in jewelry, decorative objects, and practical tools like the aptly named silverware. Its rarity gave it high value. Silver coins are credited with fueling the rise of classical Athens, and Vikings used “hacksilver”—chunks of silver bullion chopped off a larger block of the metal—as money.

2. SOME INDIGENOUS CULTURES WERE EXPERTS AT SILVERSMITHING.

As a soft, pliable metal, silver is easily smelted, but the process still requires moderate heat. Metal workers in the precolonial Americas didn’t have bellows to pump oxygen to a fire; instead, several people would encircle the fire and blow on it through tubes to increase its intensity. The Inca of the Andes became expert silversmiths. They believed gold was the sweat of the sun, and silver came from the tears of the moon.

3. SILVER CONDUCTS ELECTRICITY BETTER THAN ANY OTHER METAL.

Of all metals, silver is the best conductor of heat and electricity, so it can be used in a wide variety of applications. Metal solder, electrical parts, printed circuit boards, and batteries have all be made with silver. But it’s expensive: In electrical wiring, copper is often used instead.

4. ITS REACTIVITY TO LIGHT MADE EARLY PHOTOGRAPHY POSSIBLE.

In the 1720s, German physicist Johann Heinrich Schulze produced the first images with silver. Having discovered that a piece of chalk dipped in silver nitrate would turn black when exposed to sunlight, Schulze affixed stencils to a glass jar filled with a mix of chalk and silver nitrate. When he brought the jar into the sun, the light “printed” the stencil letters onto the chalk. A century later, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre created photographic prints on silver-coated copper plates. At the same time, British chemist William Henry Fox Talbot devised a method for developing an exposed image on silver iodide-coated paper with gallic acid.

“The effect was seen as magical, a devilish art. But this mystical development of an invisible picture was a simple reduction reaction,” science reporter Victoria Gill explains on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s podcast Chemistry in its Element. “Hollywood could never have existed without the chemical reaction that gave celluloid film its ability to capture the stars and bring them to the aptly dubbed silver screen.” Silver salts are still used in rendering high-quality images.

5. THAT SAME REACTIVITY CAN ALSO CAUSE TARNISH.

Silver reacts with sulfur in the air, which forms a layer of tarnish that can darken or change the color of a silver object. The tarnish interferes with how silver reflects light, often turning the object black, gray, or a mix of purple, orange, and red. An at-home experiment can demonstrate the process: Put a shelled and quartered hard-boiled egg (preferably still warm) in the same container as a silver object, like a spoon, and seal the container closed. The tarnish should appear within an hour, thanks to the egg’s release of hydrogen sulfide gas, and grow darker as time goes on.

6. RESEARCHERS ARE STILL EXPLORING SILVER’S ANTIMICROBIAL PROPERTIES.

According to a 2009 review, silver was one of the most important anti-microbial tools in use before the discovery of modern antibiotics in the 1940s. The ancient Macedonians were likely the first to apply silver plates to surgical wounds, while doctors in World War I used silver to prevent infections when suturing battlefield injuries. Silver is toxic to bacteria, but not to humans—unless it’s consumed in large quantities. Ingesting too much silver can cause argyria, a condition where the skin permanently turns gray or blue due to silver’s reactivity with light.

A 2013 study in Science Transitional Medicine looked into the mechanisms behind silver’s anti-microbial powers. The findings suggested that silver makes bacterial cells more permeable and interferes with their metabolism. When antibiotics were administered with a small amount of silver, the drugs killed between 10 and 1000 times more bacteria than without it. “It’s not so much a silver bullet; more a silver spoon to help [bacteria] take their medicine,” lead researcher James Collins, a biomedical engineer at Boston University, told Nature.

7. SILVER IODIDE HELPS MAKE IT RAIN.

When regions need rain after a prolonged drought, scientists can “seed” clouds by spraying silver iodide particles into the atmosphere. In the 1940s, Bernard Vonnegut (brother of the author Kurt Vonnegut) demonstrated in a lab that silver iodide provides a scaffold on which water molecules can freeze, which (theoretically) would lead to precipitation in the form of snowflakes. In a 2018 study, researchers from the University of Colorado in Boulder and other institutions demonstrated the process in actual clouds. The team sent out two planes; one to spray silver iodide and the other to track its course and measure how water responded. The second plane recorded a zigzagged line of water particles freezing in the same flight path as the plane spraying silver, confirming silver iodide’s role in cloud seeding.

Bernard Vonnegut had made his discovery while he and his brother both worked for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. The two discussed the idea of water stabilized as ice at room temperature—a concept that Kurt Vonnegut went on to explore as ice-nine in his novel Cat’s Cradle.

8. SILVER IS RESPONSIBLE FOR A LOT OF GHOST TOWNS.

The United States established a “bimetallic” currency during George Washington’s presidency. The policy required the federal government to purchase millions of ounces of silver each year to mint coins or set the value of paper currency. Government demand for silver contributed to the boom of Western mining towns in the mid-19th century, encouraged by the 1890 Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which increased the federal purchase of silver.

But falling values in relation to gold eventually led to the repeal of the Sherman act, and the price of silver crashed. The mining settlements shrank from hundreds of residents to just a handful—and some were completely abandoned. Ghost towns (or minimally populated near-ghost towns) with names like Bullionville, El Dorado, Potosi, and Midas can still can be explored in Nevada, the Silver State.

10 Lustrous Facts About Gold

This 6.5-pound gold nugget was sold at auction in 2010.
This 6.5-pound gold nugget was sold at auction in 2010.
Robyn Beck/Getty Images

Gold’s symbol on the periodic table, Au, comes from its Latin name aurum, which means “glowing dawn.” This metal’s tantalizing yellow color and shining exterior has made gold a prized element in jewelry and treasured objects for thousands of years—but, amazingly, all of the gold that has ever been refined could melt down into a single cube measuring 70 feet per side. Read on for more opulent facts.

1. GOLD WAS PROBABLY THE FIRST METAL USED BY HUMANS.

Gold, number 79 on the periodic table, is almost twice as heavy as iron, but it’s incredibly malleable—and for that reason, it was probably the first metal humans ever wrought. The oldest known worked-gold artifacts, from the Thracian civilization in present-day Bulgaria, date back 4000 years; the death mask of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun contains about 220 pounds of gold. Despite its presence in world cultures for millennia, “more than 90 percent of all of the gold ever used has been mined since 1848,” according to the American Museum of Natural History. That year marked the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, California, launching the California Gold Rush.

2. ALL OF THE GOLD IN THE UNIVERSE MAY HAVE COME FROM COLLIDING NEUTRON STARS.

In 2017, astronomers from the University of California, Berkeley and other institutions observed two massive neutron stars spinning around one another at an accelerating rate. When the two stars—each with a mass up to twice that of our Sun—finally collided, gravitational waves rippled through the universe and clouds of neutron-rich material shot out. For the first time, researchers observed red light emanating from the collision, indicating the production of heavy metals like uranium, gold, and platinum. The finding supports the theory that all of the gold in the universe was formed this way—and that particles of that gold arrived on Earth in meteorites billions of years ago.

3. IT’S AN EXCELLENT CONDUCTOR OF ELECTRICITY.

Gold efficiently transfers heat and electricity—though not as well as copper and silver. In general, some metals conduct electricity well because their atoms share electrons easily: As electrical current flows, electrons move along in the same direction with just a little voltage. (The opposite would be true of insulators like glass, in which electrons move only when compelled to do so by thousands of volts of electricity.) Because gold resists oxidation and corrosion, it continues to move electrons even if occasionally exposed to the atmosphere. That’s why electrical contact surfaces are plated with a microscopic gold coating in smart phones, airbag sensor modules, and other devices.

4. YOU CAN FIND SUNKEN TREASURE, BUT YOU MIGHT NOT GET TO KEEP IT.

In 1985, Florida diver Mel Fisher located the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a famed Spanish naval ship loaded with valuables that had sunk in a hurricane in 1622. Fisher’s motto was “finders, keepers”—and in the following decades, he retrieved gold, silver, emeralds, and pearls worth millions of dollars. Under admiralty law, Fisher was entitled to keep what he found, but archaeologists, historians, and conservationists protested. Two years after the discovery, Congress passed a law stating that riches found in wrecks within three miles of a U.S. coastline belong to the adjacent states.

5. GOLD CAN BE MEASURED WITH A UNIT FROM THE MIDDLE AGES …

The gold standard is a monetary system that ties a currency’s value to gold itself, which theoretically keeps inflation in check. The United States adopted this standard in 1879, but began to abandon the system in 1933 to stimulate the economy at the height of the Great Depression. The U.S. got rid of the gold standard entirely in 1971.

However, the U.S. Treasury still holds on to 261.5 million fine troy ounces of gold, using a unit of measurement that dates to the Middle Ages and is named after the city of Troyes, France. (A troy ounce is a few grams heavier than a regular ounce.) The goods are in the form of gold bullion (bulk gold shaped into bars), as well as coins and miscellaneous units, and stored in vaults at federal mints and reserve banks. As of September 2017, the government’s gold reserves total $335.5 billion in market value.

6. … OR IN BREAD.

Gold’s value has remained surprisingly steady over time. “King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, reigning in the 6th century BCE, bought 350 loaves of bread for an ounce of gold,” John Mulligan, head of member and market relations at the World Gold Council, tells Mental Floss. Roughly 2500 years later, with the current price of gold at about $1200 per ounce and a loaf of bread at $2.50, an ounce of gold would buy 480 loaves. “If we also then look at how gold compares with the historic purchasing power of the world’s major currencies over the last century or more,” Mulligan adds, “we see none of them has endured like gold.”

7. GOLD MIGHT HELP DESTROY CANCER.

“Gold just sits there and shines when it’s [in a] large [mass]—it doesn’t do much,” Mostafa A. El-Sayed, a leading chemist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, tells Mental Floss. “But when you cut it smaller and smaller, all of the sudden, it has different properties.” In a 2017 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, El-Sayed placed gold nanorods in mice with tumors and zapped the nanorods with a laser. The rods became hot enough to kill the adjacent cancer cells. Fifteen months later, the mice showed no long-term toxicity. In the paper on these findings, El-Sayed and his co-authors called this “a strong framework” for trying the technique in humans.

8. GOLD HAS BEEN USED IN DENTISTRY FOR AT LEAST 4000 YEARS.

Gold’s combined properties of malleability and biocompatibility (i.e., it can be tolerated inside the body) have made it useful in dentistry. Archaeologists have found gold dental modifications in skulls from Southeast Asia dating back 4000 years. The Bolinao skull, an artifact from the 14th or 15th century, is one of 67 skulls featuring decorated teeth that have been excavated in the Philippines. Ten-millimeter-wide gold plates are fixed in place on the incisors and canines in an overlapping fish-scale pattern. Today, gold-alloy crowns are still used to cap worn-down teeth or to strengthen weakened teeth.

9. NASA USES GOLD IN SPACE TECHNOLOGY.

The visors of astronauts’ space suits are coated with a layer of gold that’s just 0.000002 inches thick. The coating shields their eyes from the Sun’s harmful infrared light while allowing visible light in. That same ability to reflect infrared light will be put to work in the James Webb Space Telescope as it searches for light from the first stars and for potentially habitable exoplanets. The telescope will be equipped with 18 hexagonal mirrors in a honeycomb-like structure. Three grams of gold were vaporized in a vacuum chamber and then adhered to the telescope’s mirrors, which are made of beryllium. The layer of gold is just 100 nanometers thick—a tiny fraction of the thickness of a sheet of paper.

10. COLORADO’S CAPITOL BUILDING IS GILDED WITH PURE GOLD LEAF.

At least 10 state capitol buildings have gold-topped domes: Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Colorado’s dome was restored in 2013 using about 65 ounces of pure gold that was mined in the state and hammered into leaves between one-8000th and one-10,000th of an inch thick. Gilders applied 140,000 3-inch squares of gold leaf to sticky copper plates that were then laid on the building’s dome. “The work is as much an art as a science due to how thin and fragile the gold leaf really is,” Doug Platt, communications manager for the state’s Department of Personnel and Administration, tells Mental Floss.

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