Lithium (from Greek lithos ‘stone’) is a chemical element with symbol Li and atomic number 3. It is a soft, silver-white metal belonging to the alkali metal group of chemical elements. Under standard conditions it is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly reactive and flammable. For this reason, it is typically stored in mineral oil. When cut open, lithium exhibits a metallic lustre, but contact with moist air corrodes the surface quickly to a dull silvery grey, then black tarnish. Because of its high reactivity, lithium never occurs freely in nature, and instead, only appears in compounds, which are usually ionic.
Lithium is so soft it can be cut with scissors and it’s so light that it floats on water. But it’s also extremely reactive so it doesn’t stay shiny or silvery very long. For this reason, it is never found “in the wild” in its pure elemental form (on earth). Similar to helium, lithium has many uses, not the least of which are lithium-ion batteries, soldering flux and, since it burns a brilliant scarlet colour, it provides those spectacular red colours to fireworks. Lithium’s medicinal uses are among its most important attributes: it is critically important as a mood stabilizer for hundreds of thousands of people who find relief from the worst symptoms of bipolar disorder. Lithium also lessens symptoms for some migraine sufferers and for some who experience cluster headaches. How it works in the body remains elusive.
Trace amounts of lithium are present in all organisms. The element serves no apparent vital biological function, since animals and plants survive in good health without it. Non-vital functions have not been ruled out.
- Ceramics and glass – Lithium oxide is a widely used flux for processing silica, reducing the melting point and viscosity of the material and leading to glazes of improved physical properties
- Electrical and electronics – Commonly used in batteries
- Lubricating greases
- Pyrotechnics – Fireworks
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