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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.