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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
Cobalt hides out in everyday objects and happenings around us, from batteries and blue paint to medical procedures. We've used it for millennia, even before the common era, but it didn't get proper credit until the 18th century. With its 27 protons, cobalt is sandwiched between iron and nickel in the middle portion of the periodic table with the other "transition" metals, which bridge the main group elements located on either side. Here are ten curious facts about this element.
Though you can find cobalt just about everywhere—in the soil, in mineral deposits, and even in crusts on the seafloor—it's always combined with other elements like nickel, copper, iron, or arsenic, such as in the bright crimson arsenate mineral erythrite. It's usually collected as a byproduct of mining for other metals—especially nickel and copper—and, once purified, is a burnished gray color.
Despite being relatively common, it's considered a critical raw material by the European Union because there are few places where it's abundant enough to be mined in larger quantities. The only mine in the world where it's the primary product is in Morocco.
Centuries ago, miners in the mountains of Germany had a great deal of trouble trying to melt down certain ores for useful metals like silver and copper, and even dealt with poisonous fumes released from the rock, which could make them very sick or even kill them. They blamed the kobolds—pesky, underground sprites of local folklore (and more recently, the name of a Dungeons & Dragons species). Though the vapors actually arose from the arsenic also contained in the ores, when chemists later extracted cobalt from these minerals, the name stuck.
It was not until the 1730s that Swedish chemist George Brandt purified and identified cobalt from arsenic-containing ores, then another 50 years until Torbern Bergman, another Swede, verified Brandt's new element. It is worth noting, though, that at the time the elements were simply in an incomplete list and had not been organized into a meaningful table.
People have been using cobalt-containing pigments to get that rich blue hue as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE, when Persians used them to color their necklace beads. From Egypt to China, artisans created blue glass from cobalt compounds for thousands of years. The color was long attributed to the element bismuth, depriving cobalt of pigment fame.
The famed "cobalt blue" is actually the result of the compound cobalt aluminate. Cobalt in other chemical combinations can also make a variety of other colors. Cobalt phosphate is used to make a violet pigment, and cobalt green is achieved by combining cobalt oxides with zinc oxides.
Cobalt is one of the few elements that are ferromagnetic, which means it can become magnetized when exposed to an external magnetic field. Cobalt remains magnetic at extremely high temperatures, making it very useful for the specialized magnets in generators and hard drives. When mixed with the right metals, cobalt can also help create materials called "superalloys" that keep their strength under huge stress and high temperatures—advantageous, for instance, in a jet engine. Most people, however, can find cobalt hiding closer to home, inside some rechargeable batteries.
Scientists such as chemist Patrick Holland at Yale University are looking at ways to use cobalt in place of the more rare and expensive metals often used in industrial catalysts. These catalysts—chemical "helpers" that speed up reactions—are used in making adhesives, lubricants, or pharmaceutical precursors, for instance. Precious metals like platinum and iridium often make good catalysts, but they are also pricey, can be toxic to humans, and, as precious implies, are not abundant. There is a "big upswing in people looking at iron, nickel, and cobalt because of their price," Holland tells Mental Floss.
All three could be viable options in the future. The challenge, Holland says, is "walking the tightrope" between creating an effective, reactive catalyst and one that is too reactive or overly sensitive to impurities.
The metal perches in the middle of the impressively complex molecule vitamin B12—a.k.a. cobalamin—which is involved in making red blood cells and DNA, and helps keep your nervous system healthy. Cobalt also lends an extra distinction to B12: It's the only vitamin that contains a metal atom.
To measure B12 intake in patients, doctors use a "labeled" version of B12 in which the cobalt atom is replaced with a radioactive cobalt isotope. Oncologists and technicians also use the radiation from cobalt isotopes in some cancer therapies as well as to sterilize medical and surgical tools. These days, cobalt alloys are even found in artificial hip joints and knees.
In the 1960s, some breweries added cobalt chloride to their beers because it helped maintain the appealing foam that builds when beer is poured. By 1967, more than 100 heavy beer drinkers in Quebec City, Minneapolis, Omaha, and Belgium had suffered heart failure, and nearly half of them died. At the time, doctors were also administering cobalt to patients for medical reasons without causing this severe effect, so the blame couldn't lie with the metal alone. After studying the remains of the deceased, scientists proposed that the so-called "cobalt-beer cardiomyopathy" had been caused by an unhealthy mélange of cobalt, high alcohol intake, and poor diet. The FDA banned the use of cobalt chloride as a food additive shortly after.