Represented by the atomic number 3 and symbol Li in the periodic table, lithium is described as a silver-white and soft metal. It is one of the alkali metals, which is generally considered the lightest amongst the various kinds of metals. Likewise, it is also the least dense amongst the different solid elements. More than anything else, it is known for its important uses in the fields of medicine, electronics and general engineering.
The Discovery of Lithium
Who discovered the element lithium? In 1817, a Swedish chemist named Johan August Arfwedson became the very first person to discover this chemical element. The result came from his analysis of a petalite ore. Before that, a Brazilian scientist named Jose Bonifacio de Andrade e Silva discovered lithium aluminum silicate or petalite in 1800. This finding was instrumental, particularly in the discovery of lithium. Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius named it ‘lithos,’ which later on was standardized as lithium.
Additional Facts and Other Important Details
After he discovered lithium, Arfwedson pursued his research on the element and found that it was also present in other minerals such as lepidolite and spodumene. By 1818, a chemistry professor from the University of Tubingen in Germany named Christian Gmelin discovered that lithium salts produced a bright reddish color when exposed to flame.
Although their discoveries were highly significant, Gmelin and Arfwedson were unsuccessful in their quests to isolate lithium from its salts. In 1821, English chemist William Thomas Brande performed electrolysis on lithium oxide, which became the very first successful attempt to isolate lithium from its salts.
In terms of applications, people found a number of different ways to make use of this all-important element. Thanks to its specific heat capacity, it is now widely used in heat transfer applications. In addition, it also has a high electrochemical potential, which helped a lot in the production of lithium-ion batteries. The fine-chemical industry as well as the pharmaceutical industry found great use for this element, particularly in producing organolithium reagents.
Lithium is also used widely in the medical field. In the 19th century, doctors used lithium salts as treatment for gout. Today different types of lithium salts including lithium orotate, lithium citrate and lithium carbonate are used as mood stabilizers. However, the use of drugs containing this element could result to side effects such as hypothyroidism, ataxia and muscle tremors.
Moreover, lithium is also used in electronics, particularly in producing telecommunication gadgets such as optical modulators and mobile phones. Meanwhile, lithium metal is commonly used to prepare organo-lithium compounds. In addition, it also has a number of highly important uses in the fields of rocketry, optics and general engineering.