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 the Element Neon

Most of us are familiar with neon as a term for bright colors and vibrant signs, but you may not know as much about the element underlying the name, which scientists were first able to isolate starting in 1898. Here are eight facts about neon—abbreviated Ne and number 10 on the periodic table— that might surprise you.

1. The element neon wasn’t William Ramsay’s first big discovery.

Sir William Ramsay already had a few elements under his belt by the time he and fellow British chemist Morris Travers became the first scientists to isolate neon. In 1894, he and physicist John Williams had isolated argon from air for the first time. Then, in 1895, he became the first person to isolate helium on Earth. But he had a hunch that more noble gases might exist, and he and Travers isolated neon, krypton, and xenon for the first time in 1898. As a result of his discoveries, Ramsay won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1904.

2. It’s one of the noble gases.

There are seven noble gases: helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, radon, and oganesson (a synthetic element). Like the other noble gases, neon is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and under standard conditions, nonflammable. Neon is highly unreactive—the least reactive of any of the noble gases, in fact—and doesn’t form chemical bonds with other elements, so there are no neon compounds. That non-reactivity is what makes neon so useful in light bulbs.

3. The name means new.

With the exception of helium, all of the noble gases have names ending in -on. The word neon comes from the Greek word for new, νέος.

4. It's pulled out of the air.

Neon is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. Stars produce it, and it’s one of the components of solar wind. It's also found in the lunar atmosphere. But it’s difficult to find on Earth. Neon is located in Earth’s mantle as well as in tiny amounts in air, which is where we get commercial neon. Dry air contains just 0.0018 percent neon, compared to 20.95 percent oxygen and 78.09 percent nitrogen, plus trace amounts of other gases. Using a process of alternately compressing and expanding air, scientists can turn most of these gases into liquids, separating them for industrial and commercial use. (Liquid nitrogen, for instance, is used to freeze warts and make cold brew coffee, among other applications.) In the case of neon, it’s not a simple or efficient process. It takes 88,000 pounds of liquid air to produce 1 pound of neon.

5. It glows red.

Although we associate neon with a whole spectrum of bright, colorful lights, neon itself only glows reddish-orange. The signs we think of as just “neon” often actually contain argon, helium, xenon, or mercury vapor in some combination. On their own, these gases produce different colors—mercury glows blue, while helium glows pinkish-red and xenon glows purple. So to create a range of warm and cool colors, engineers combine the different gases or add coatings to the inside of the lighting tubes. For instance, deep blue light might be a mixture of argon and mercury, while a red sign probably has a neon-argon mixture. Depending on the color, some of the signs we call neon may not contain any neon at all. (These days, though, many bright signs are made with LEDs, rather than any of these inert gases.)

6. It quickly became a lighting element.

From the start, Ramsay and Travers knew that neon glowed if it came into contact with a high voltage of electric current. In fact, Ramsay referred to its "brilliant flame-covered light, consisting of many red, orange, and yellow lines” in his Nobel Prize lecture. Soon enough, French engineer Georges Claude began trying to harness it for use in commercial lighting. He had developed a new process to liquify air and separate its different components on an industrial scale. His company, L’Air Liquide, started out selling liquid oxygen, but Claude also figured out a way to make money off one of the byproducts of the process, neon. Inspired by the design of Moore lamps, he put neon into long glass tubes that were book-ended with electrodes. He debuted his first glowing neon tubes in Paris in 1910, and sold his first neon sign in 1912. He attained a U.S. patent for neon lighting in 1915, and went on to make a fortune.

7. It made it to California before Las Vegas.

Neon signage didn’t immediately come to Las Vegas, though it would later become an integral part of that city’s architectural aesthetic. (Vegas is now home to the Neon Museum, a collection of classic neon signs.) It’s unclear where neon signs first came to the U.S.—legend has it that Los Angeles became the first U.S. city to boast a neon sign thanks to the luxury car company Packard (which caused traffic jams when it debuted its brightly colored billboard)—but academics and historians have had trouble verifying that claim. The earliest neon sign researchers Dydia DeLyser and Paul Greenstein were able to track down in the U.S. was indeed a Packard sign in California dating back to 1923. But it hung outside a showroom in San Francisco, not Los Angeles.

8. It’s for more than just signs.

Neon is also used in lasers, electronic equipment, diving gear, and more. It’s a highly effective refrigerant, and is used to cool motors, power equipment, and superconductors, among other things.

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.

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