Lithium is a chemical element with atomic number 3 in the periodic table. This chemical element is a mixture of lithium-6 and lithium-7, both stable isotopes. Lithium is the first metal element classified according to Mendeleev’s system of elements and it occurs in an abundance of 0.002% of Earth’s crust.
As a member of the alkali metals family of periodic table elements, lithium has one valence electron and can form numerous compounds and reactions with other chemical elements. Its most important application is in the treatment of bipolar disorder.
Chemical and Physical Properties of Lithium
|Atomic weight (mass)||6.941 g.mol-1|
|Uses||Batteries, certain kinds of glass and ceramics, lubricants|
|Description||Hard, brittle, steel-gray metal. Lightest rigid metal. Sweet but deadly taste.|
|Group||1(IA) Alkali Metal|
|Color||Silvery-white with a pearly luster|
|Physical state||Solid at room temperature|
|Half-life||From less than 10 nanoseconds to 839.4 milliseconds|
|Density||0.53 g.cm-3 at 20°C|
|Van der Waals radius||0.145 nm|
|Ionic radius||0.76 (+1) Å|
|Isotopes||10 (2 stable isotopes)|
|Most characteristic isotope||7Li|
|Electronic shell||[He] 2s1|
|The energy of the first ionization||520.1 kJ.mol-1|
|Crystal Structure||Cubic: Body centered|
|Covalent Radius||1.23 Å|
|Atomic Radius||2.05 Å|
|Atomic Volume||13.10 cm³/mol|
|Name Origin||Greek: lithos (stone)|
|Discovery date||1817, by Johann Arfwedson|
Lithium is a soft and silver-white alkali metal with the periodic table symbol Li, atomic number 3, atomic mass of 6.941 g.mol-1, and electron configuration X. This actinium is ductile and reaches its boiling point at 1342°C (2448°F, 1615 K), while its melting point is at 180.50°C (356.90°F, 453.65 K). This highly reactive member of the alkali metals family of elements in the periodic table has an electronegativity of 1.0 according to Pauling. The atomic radius according to van der Waals is 0.145 nm.
The chemical properties of lithium resemble the properties of the alkali metals sodium and potassium. Lithium shares similar atomic and ionic radii with magnesium, which is evident from the oxidation states they adopt, as well as from their oxidation properties. This alkali metal has a monoclinic crystal formation and is highly corrosive.
Lithium burns with a brilliant white flame and reacts violently when it comes into contact with water, a process that results in hydrogen gas and an alkali metal hydroxide solution (lithium hydroxide (LiOH)). Due to its light atomic weight, this chemical substance floats on water. Element 3 of the periodic table is more easily soluble in cold water than in hot water.
The low density and the high thermal and electrical conductivity are some of the main chemical properties that make lithium an ideal component of many metal alloys.
How Was Lithium Discovered?
According to writings that refer to events from the 2nd century AD, lithium was known to the ancient civilizations millennia before its discovery as a chemical element.
In modern times, lithium was discovered in 1817 by the Swedish chemist Johan August Arfvedson (1792-1841). By conducting an experimental analysis at Jöns Jakob Berzelius’ Stockholm laboratory, Arfvedson attempted to confirm his belief that a certain petalite (LiAlSi4O10) sample hides a new metal that was waiting to be discovered. According to his projections, this new element had to be a new alkali metal that was lighter than sodium.
Because of his hypothesis, Arfvedson used the same method of electrolysis that Sir Humprey Davy employed in 1807 when he discovered sodium. However, the attempt of the Swedish chemist to isolate the new alkali metal with electrolysis from the ore sample obtained from a Swedish iron mine was not successful.
However, Arfvedson’s work was not futile. Although he didn’t succeed in isolating the elemental form of lithium, he did manage to detect the new metal in the minerals spodumene and lepidolite.
The Contribution of William Thomas Brande and Sir Humphry Davy to the Discovery of Lithium
In 1818, William Thomas Brande and Sir Humphry Davy attempted to finish the chemical trial started by Arfvedson. By using the electrolysis method on lithium oxide, these two chemists finally managed to isolate the pure elemental form of the lithium metal. Upon performing the experiment, Davy observed that the new element emitted a red flame that resembled that of strontium. The new metallic substance produced an alkali solution when dissolved in water.
How Did Lithium Get Its Name?
The name of this element originates from the Greek word ‘lithos’, meaning ‘stone’. The reason behind the name is the fact that this alkali metal is obtained from mineral rocks, unlike the other alkali members of its group.
Where Can You Find Lithium?
Despite being one of the three chemical elements (along with hydrogen and helium) that were created within the first three minutes of the Universe’s birth – the Big Bang – lithium is rarely found free in the Universe. This highly reactive chemical element is present in the human body, the soil, plants, and animals, as well as in numerous compounds. It’s mainly extracted from ores and mineral springs.
Lepidolite and spodumene are the most common mineral forms in which lithium occurs. These two minerals are found in abundance in a special igneous rock deposit, referred to as pegmatite. Lithium carbonate may also be recovered from subsurface brines encapsulated in the Earth’s crust.
For commercial purposes, lithium is obtained from the minerals petalite (LiAl(Si2O5)2, lepidolite K(Li,Al)3(Al,Si,Rb)4O10(F,OH)2, and spodumene LiAl(SiO3)2. This chemical is produced by the electrolysis of a fused mixture of lithium and potassium chlorides. The largest amounts of lithium come from Chile, Australia, China, Argentina, Russia, Canada, Zimbabwe, Portugal, Brazil, and Bolivia. The richest lithium mineral ore locations in the world can be found in these countries.
On the other hand, South Dakota, in the United States, is the location of the largest spodumene ore deposits that are used for the extraction of lithium aluminum silicate. In the United States, lithium can also be obtained from the brine pools in Nevada.
Lithium in Everyday Life
The primary use of lithium compounds, also referred to as lithium salts, is in the treatment of some psychiatric conditions and mental illnesses that do not improve from the administration of antidepressants in the therapy of an affected individual.
Additionally, numerous lithium compounds have a broad range of applications in various industries. They are used in the following instances:
- Due to its low nuclear cross-section, the Lithium-7 isotope is used in the cooling systems of nuclear reactors;
- The lithium hydride compound is a source of hydrogen used in hydrogen bombs;
- Lithium is also used in the manufacturing of aluminum, armor plating, aircraft, etc;
- Today, lithium-ion batteries are especially widely used. This type of rechargeable battery is used as an energy source for portable electronic devices, electric vehicles, cameras, pacemakers, laptops, smartphones, and smart watches;
- Lithium is also used in the production of bicycle frames. When mixed with aluminum and magnesium, lithium contributes to the formation of both a strong and lightweight alloy which is conveniently used in the bicycle industry;
- N-butyllithium, C4H9Li is used as an initiator of polymerization in the process of manufacturing process synthetic rubber;
- Lithium hydride (LiH) is a source of hydrogen that readily releases the lithium during its chemical reaction with water;
- Lithium hydroxide (LiOH) is a compound of the 3rd element of the periodic table that is used in the process of making lithium salts (soaps) which are used as thickeners in lubricating greases;
- We’ve already mentioned lithium’s popular role in the production of pharmaceuticals;
- This alkali metal is used for the manufacturing of special glasses and glass ceramics, which are needed for developments of infrastructure, renovation of buildings, and contemporary housing projects.
Lithium and Health
Lithium as a medication is used in the treatment of mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depressive disorder, manic disorders, and schizophrenia. It is also used to treat inflammation of the joints (gout).
Bipolar Disorder (Manic Depression)
Lithium is used as a mood-stabilizing medicine administered for the treatment of manic episodes that occur in individuals affected by bipolar disorder (manic depression). Lithium affects the brain’s chemical known as serotonin. Also referred to as “the enzyme of happiness”, serotonin is one of the most vital neurotransmitters in the brain that regulate a person’s mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, memory, sleep cycles, etc.
Before we analyze the role of lithium in its treatment, let’s get better familiarized with this disorder.
What Is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder characterized by fluctuating feelings that range from and quickly alter between great joy and sadness, manic happiness, and depression.
When the affected patients become depressed, they feel hopeless, suffer severe loss of energy, keep a low profile, get very quiet, feel worthless, lose interest in all activities, and often find escape in excessive sleeping, or, in some cases, suicide.
When their mood swings to mania or hypomania, they feel euphoric, energetic, talkative, and have a decreased need for sleep and racing thoughts. However, they’re also irritable, jumpy, anxious, distractible, and their decision-making abilities are poor.
Also labeled as manic depression or manic-depressive illness, bipolar disorder can be analyzed and treated in several ways based on the symptoms.
Types of Bipolar Disorder
There are five types of this mood disorder:
- Bipolar I disorder;
- Bipolar II disorder;
- Cyclothymic disorder;
- Bipolar disorder with mixed features;
- Rapid-cycling disorder.
The common symptoms of all forms of this disorder include an interchangeable period of positive mood and irritability, extreme happiness, deep depression, high energy levels, apathy, self-loathing, feelings of hopelessness or despair, etc.
If these manifestations of bipolar disorder are not treated promptly, they may lead to alcohol or drug abuse, suicide attempts, legal or financial problems, problems with the interpersonal relationships of the affected individual, poor everyday performance (at work, school, home), and so on.
Some additional potential complications include problems such as anxiety, an eating disorder (anorexia or bulimia), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), heart disease, thyroid problems, drastic loss of weight or obesity, etc.
What Are the Causes of Bipolar Disorder?
Although the causes of this disorder are not yet clearly determined, it’s assumed that there must be a genetic predisposition for it (a family history). Additionally, the rapid mood swings can be triggered by a stressful event, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, emotional, material, work-related problems, or a tragic loss of a beloved. Drug or alcohol abuse may also lead to bipolar personality disorder.
The Contribution of John Cade in the Use of Lithium for Treating Bipolar Disorder
John Cade is an Australian doctor who was the first to link the beneficial and calming effect of lithium in patients with mental health problems. Being a direct observer of human sufferings as one of the prisoners of war in the infamous WWII Changi POW camp, caused Dr. Cade to develop an even greater interest in mental health problems, their manifestation, and what triggers them.
His first clue of the beneficial link between lithium treatment and bipolar disorder was the metabolic disorder in manic patients that was indicated by excessive urea (a nitrogen-based waste product) in their urine. To confirm his theory, Dr. Cade performed an experiment on live guinea pigs by injecting uric acid, i.e. a highly soluble lithium urate, into their bodies. This had a calming effect on the lab guinea pigs.
The experiments that were later conducted on real patients further confirmed the calming effect of lithium on the central nervous system, which was most evident in patients suffering from mania and bipolar disorder.
In 1969, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) formed a team of medical doctors and scientists to conduct more thorough research and meta-analysis on the effects of lithium in the treatment of bipolar disorder. The team led by the American doctor Ronald R. Fieve approved lithium as a prescription medication after the systematic clinical trials. Thanks to his contribution, Dr. Fieve is considered to be a pioneer in encouraging the use of lithium in the United States as a medication for reducing manic episodes and suicidal tendencies in patients with bipolar disorder and mania.
Types of Lithium Drugs
When the antidepressant therapy yields no results in these medical cases, lithium is prescribed as an oral medication in the form of lithium carbonate (tablets) or lithium citrate (liquid medication). Lithium-containing drugs include:
- Lithium Carbonate ER;
- Seroquel XR;
- Depakote ER;
- Lamictal ODT;
These drugs are classified as antimanic agents and are used in the treatment of the following psychiatric conditions:
- Bipolar Disorder;
- Intermittent Explosive Disorder;
- Schizoaffective Disorder;
- Cyclothymic Disorder;
- Borderline Personality Disorder;
- Cluster Headaches.
Typically, lithium should not be administered to a patient if the individual is already taking antidepressant therapy or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). This list includes the brand names of drugs that cannot be prescribed at the same time as lithium because they affect the levels of lithium in the blood:
- Fluoxetine (Prozac®);
- Paroxetine (Paxil®);
- Sertraline (Zoloft®);
- Amitriptyline (Elavil®);
- Clomipramine (Anafranil®);
- Ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®, Nuprin®),
- Indomethacin (Indocin®),
- Naproxen (Aleve®, Anaprox®, Naprelan®, Naprosyn®);
- Celecoxib (Celebrex®),
- Furosemide (Lasix®);
- Lisinopril (Prinivil®, Zestril®);
- Bumetanide (Bumex®);
- Phenelzine (Nardil®);
- Haloperidol (Haldol®);
- Torsemide (Demadex®);
- Diclofenac (Voltaren®);
- Captopril (Capoten®);
- Acetazolamide (Diamox®);
- Chlorothiazide (Diuril®);
- Carbamazepine (Tegretol®);
- Tranylcypromine (Parnate®);
- Nabumetone (Relafen®).
Taking lithium as a mood stabilizer simultaneously with any of the aforementioned medicines may lead to unwanted drug interactions resulting in the failure of vital body organs and systems.
Important: Please note that this information is for educational and informative purposes only. This list is not complete and many other drugs may interact with lithium, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines, ACE inhibitors, vitamins, and herbal products. We strongly advise that you seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider before treating any medical problems.
Side Effects of Lithium Taken as Medication
A common side effect of lithium therapy is increased urination, which removes lithium from the body. This can lead to kidney disease or a potentially fatally irregular heart rhythm referred to as the Brugada syndrome.
Other adverse effects that occur after lithium administration in therapy include:
- Dry mouth;
- Increased thirst;
- Weight gain;
- Metallic taste in the mouth;
- Swelling from excess fluid retention in the body;
- Skin problems (acne, psoriasis, rash);
- Muscle pain;
- Hair loss;
- Blurred vision or complete loss of it;
- Tremor of the hands (shaky hands);
- Gastrointestinal problems (nausea, vomiting);
- Bulging eyeballs;
- Cognitive problems;
- Problems with memory;
- Impaired kidney function.
More serious side effects of taking lithium as medicine include the following medical conditions:
- Manic episodes;
- Diabetes insipidus;
- Severe lithium toxicity.
What Happens if a Patient Misses a Dose?
In this case, the missed dose should be skipped if it’s almost time for the next dose. Two doses must not be taken at the same time. Extended-release lithium tablets should be swallowed whole, without being chewed or crushed. The liquid lithium medication should be measured with a dosing spoon.
How Dangerous Is Lithium?
Even though lithium salts are not highly toxic, they may have fatal consequences if the levels absorbed in the human body are high. Also, in reaction with water, lithium reacts in a volatile manner by creating an explosion due to the resulting caustic hydroxide of the reaction. This may pose a severe fire hazard.
Furthermore, the prolonged exposure to the dust of the pure elemental form of lithium may lead to a build-up of fluid in the lungs. This, in turn, often results in pulmonary edema and collapse of the lungs.
Since lithium is typically used as medicine for treating psychiatric disorders, it’s worth noting that there is a thin line between what’s a therapeutic dose of lithium and a dose that is poisonous to the body and can lead to lithium toxicity.
In addition, lithium taken as medicine is likely unsafe for women who are breastfeeding, since it can enter the breast milk and trigger unwanted side effects in the nursing infant.
What Is Lithium Toxicity?
Lithium toxicity occurs when there are extremely high levels of the mood-stabilizing medication accumulated in the body’s tissues and organs. The adequate levels of lithium vary among the different medical cases. However, a dose between 900 milligrams (mg) and 1,200 mg per day is considered to be the administration norm of this drug.
It’s considered safe when the amount of lithium in the bloodstream is between 0.6 and 1.2 milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L). When the levels are higher than these values, life-threatening lithium toxicity may occur. Blood tests are the best method to monitor the lithium concentrations in the blood.
What Are the Symptoms of Lithium Toxicity?
The adverse health effects of a large accumulation of lithium in the body typically manifest with the following symptoms:
- Gastrointestinal problems (diarrhea, vomiting, nausea);
- Tremors (involuntary shaking of hands, legs, or the head);
- Excessive tiredness;
- Muscle weakness;
- Extreme sleepiness;
- Slow movements;
- General weakness of the body;
- Low blood pressure values;
- Mental confusion;
- Rapid heartbeat;
- Slurred speech;
- Dysfunctional kidneys;
Environmental Effects of Lithium
The mining of lithium ores harms the environment. The demand for lithium-ion batteries that are used as energy sources for the newest technological gadgets (smartphones, hybrid and electric vehicles, laptops, etc.) has further worsened this environmental problem due to the increased presence of lithium in our surroundings.
Isotopes of Lithium
There are 10 forms of lithium. Among them, only two isotopes of this element are stable. The most abundant isotope of lithium is the 7Li form of the chemical element. Lithium-7 comprises 92.5% of all naturally occurring lithium and has poor neutron-absorbing properties, i.e. a low nuclear cross-section.
Lithium-8 isotope and lithium-9 isotope (with a half-life of 0.17 second) are produced by a nuclear bombardment. With a half-life of only 839.4 milliseconds, the lithium-8 isotope is the longest living radioactive isotope of this chemical element.
|Z||N||Isotopic mass (Da)
[n 2][n 3]
[n 6][n 7]
|Natural abundance (mole fraction)|
|Excitation energy||Normal proportion||Range of variation|
|3562.88(10) keV||5.6(14)×10−17 s||IT||6
|3||6||9.02679019(20)||178.3(4) ms||β−, n (50.8%)||8
|200(40) keV||3.7(15)×10−21 s||1+|
|480(40) keV||1.35(24)×10−21 s||2+|
|3||8||11.0437236(7)||8.75(14) ms||β−, n (86.3%)||10
|β−, 2n (4.1%)||9
|β−, 3n (1.9%)||8
|β−, α (1.7%)||7
|β−, fission (.009%)||8
|β−, fission (.013%)||9
List of Lithium Compounds
Lithium forms a great number of both organic and inorganic compounds, including hydrides, oxides, nitrides, carbides, hydroxides, etc. Numerous lithium compounds have a variable solubility in comparison to the corresponding compounds made by other alkali metals.
The list of lithium minerals comprises the following compounds of the chemical element:
- Simon Moores
Other important lithium compounds include:
- Caesium lithium borate
- Gilman reagent
- Lithium 12-hydroxystearate
- Lithium acetate
- Lithium aluminate
- Lithium aluminium hydride
- Lithium amide
- Lithium aspartate
- Lithium azide
- Lithium beryllide
- Lithium bicarbonate
- Lithium bis(trifluoromethanesulfonyl)imide
- Lithium bis(trimethylsilyl)amide
- Lithium borate
- Lithium borohydride
- Lithium bromide
- Lithium carbide
- Lithium carbonate
- Lithium chlorate
- Lithium chloride
- Lithium citrate
- Lithium cobalt oxide
- Lithium cyanide
- Lithium diisopropylamide
- Lithium disilicate
- Lithium fluoride
- Lithium hexafluorogermanate
- Lithium hexafluorophosphate
- Lithium hydride
- Lithium hydroxide
- Lithium hypochlorite
- Lithium imide
- Lithium iodate
- Lithium iodide
- Lithium iridate
- Lithium iron phosphate
- Lithium metaborate
- Lithium metasilicate
- Lithium methoxide
- Lithium molybdate
- Lithium molybdenum purple bronze
- Lithium monoxide anion
- Lithium nickel cobalt aluminium oxides
- Lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxides
- Lithium niobate
- Lithium nitrate
- Lithium nitride
- Lithium nitrite
- Lithium orotate
- Lithium orthosilicate
- Lithium oxide
- Lithium perchlorate
- Lithium peroxide
- Lithium platinate
- Lithium polonide
- Lithium ruthenate
- Lithium selenide
- Lithium stearate
- Lithium succinate
- Lithium sulfate
- Lithium sulfide
- Lithium sulfite
- Lithium superoxide
- Lithium tantalate
- Lithium tert-butoxide
- Lithium tetrachloroaluminate
- Lithium tetrafluoroborate
- Lithium tetrahydridogallate
- Lithium tetrakis(pentafluorophenyl)borate
- Lithium tetramethylpiperidide
- Lithium titanate
- Lithium triborate
- Lithium triethylborohydride
- Lithium triflate
- Lithium tungstate
- Lithium soap
- Neodymium-doped yttrium lithium fluoride
- Yttrium lithium fluoride
5 Interesting Facts and Explanations
- Lithium carbonate, followed by lithium hydroxide, lithium concentrate, lithium metal, lithium chloride, and butyllithium, are the most commonly demanded compounds of this element in the global lithium market.
- Apart from the predominant silvery-white color in which this alkali metal occurs, it can also be found in purple, pink (petalite), rose, grey, gray (lepidolite), pale purple, grayish-white, silver, and pale-green color.
- Even though beryllium, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen have heavier atomic nuclei than lithium, the lithium-7 isotope occurs in lesser amounts than these chemical elements in the Universe.
- Since alkali metals are very reactive, they can be rarely found in nature in their free form. While lithium is chiefly obtained from mineral rocks, the other alkali metals are isolated from plant materials.
- Lithium is the lightest of all solid elements classified in the periodic table.