Lithium is the lightest of all solid elements and the first element in the alkali metal column in the periodic table. It is silvery white, soft and reacts immediately with air and water. Lithium is a rare element because of its highly dispersed occurrence in the earth’s crust. Economic concentrations occur in salts from surface and substance brines and in the minerals petalite, spodumene, amblygonite-montebrasite and lepidolite in giant pegmatite deposits.
Lithium was first discovered and defined in 1817 but was not produced commercially until 1923 by a company called Metallgesellschaft AG. Until now, lithium has been a minor commodity used in small quantities by manufacturers of glass, grease and mood-stabilizing drugs. In recent years demand has skyrocketed due to the increase in mobile phone, laptops and assorted electronic devices popular with consumers.
Lithium-ion batteries have become the rechargeable battery of choice and are now almost used exclusively in cell phone and computer batteries with items such as shavers, power tools, and hybrid and electric cars switching over from the nickel varieties. The benefits of lithium-ion batteries include:
- Higher energy density to weight ratio
- Longer life
- No memory effect
Between 2003 and 2007 the battery industry doubled its consumption of lithium carbonate, the most common ingredient used in lithium-based products.
The lithium bonanza may just be starting. Lithium-ion batteries are integral to the automobile industry’s plans to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Since a vehicle battery requires a hundred times as much lithium carbonate as its laptop equivalent, the green-car revolution could make lithium one of the planet’s most strategic commodities.