2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is about the exciting group one element, lithium!
Lithium has a wide range of uses – it can even power batteries!
Lithium was first discovered in mines in Australia and Chile, and was initially used to treat gout, an arthritic inflammatory condition. Its use as a psychiatric medication wasn’t established until 1949, when an Australian psychiatrist discovered the positive effect that lithium salts had on treating mania. Since then, scientists have discovered that lithium works as a mood stabiliser by targeting neurotransmitters in the brain.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that are released by one neuron to send a message to the next neuron. There are several types found in humans including dopamine, serotonin and glutamate. Each has a different role, and different levels of each neurotransmitter can be linked to a variety of mental illnesses. However, it is an increase in glutamate – an excitatory neurotransmitter that plays a role in learning and memory – and has been linked to the manic phase of bipolar disorder.
Lithium salts have been used as a medication for mania effectively since 1949. Image: Pixabay
Lithium is thought to stabilise levels of glutamate, keeping it at a healthy and stable level. Though it isn’t a fully comprehensive treatment for bipolar disorder, lithium has an important role in treating the manic phase and helping researchers to understand the condition.
One of the most common types of battery you will find in modern electronics is the lithium ion battery. This battery type was first invented in the 1970s, using titanium (IV) sulphide and lithium metal. Although this battery had great potential, scientists struggled to make a rechargeable version.
Initial rechargeable batteries were dangerous, mainly due to the instability of the lithium metal. This resulted in them failing safety tests and led to the use of lithium ions instead.
Lithium-ion batteries are widely used and developments in the technology continue today.
Developments in lithium ion technology continue to this day, in which the recently-founded Faraday Institute plays a large role. As part of the Faraday Battery Challenge, they are bringing together expertise from universities and industry, supporting projects that develop lithium-based batteries, along with new battery technologies.
Nuclear fusion happens in a hollow steel donut surrounded by magnets. The large magnetic fields contain a charged gas known as plasma, which is heated to 100m Kelvin and leads to nuclear fusion of the deuterium and tritium in the plasma. Keeping the plasma stable and preventing it from cooling is one of the largest industrial problems to overcome. This is where lithium comes in.
Results from studies in which lithium is delivered in a liquid form to the edge of the plasma, show that lithium is stable and maintains its temperature and could potentially be used in controlling the plasma. It can also increase the plasma temperature if injected under certain conditions, improving the overall conditions for fusion.
Lithium has uses in plasma stabilisation in nuclear fusion. Video: Tedx Talks
Aside from its uses in nuclear fusion, lithium has other uses in the nuclear industry. For example, it is used as an additive in coolant systems. Lithium fluoride and other similar salts have a low vapour pressure, meaning they can carry more heat than the same amount of water.