Discovery of Elements : Lithium


The fate of the lightest metal is outwardly uneventful. It was the third alkali metal to be discovered in nature. Its abundance on Earth is much less than that of sodium and potassium, its minerals are rare and, therefore, it came relatively later to man’s attention.

At the very beginning of the 18th century the prominent Brazilian scientist and statesman J. Andrada e Silva was travelling in Scandinavia. A passionate mineralogist, he wanted to enrich his collection with new specimens. He had luck and found two new minerals which he named petalite and spodumene. J. Andrada e Silva found the minerals at the island of Uto belonging to Sweden. Soon spoudmene was found in other places but the existence of petalite was doubted until, in 1817, it was found at Uto the second time.

Therefore, spodumene was the first to become the subject of investigation. M. Klaproth studied it but discovered nothing except alumina and silica. In a word, spodumene was a typical aluminosilicate. But the total mass of the isolated components was 9.5 per cent less than the mass of the initial sample, and Klaproth could not explain the reason for this considerable loss. Meanwhile, his compatriot I. Nepomuk von Fux discovered by chance that a pinch of spodumene turned the burner flame red. The scientist did nottry to find to the reason for this phenomenon, and that was a mistake, since he could have discovered a new element in spodumene.

The second discovery of petalite attracted attention to the mineral. L. Vauquelin found alkali in it, in addition to alumina and silica, but erroneously identified it with potash. W. Hizinger obtained interesting and suggestive results but had no chance to explain them since the same data had already been published by the Swedish chemist I. Arfvedson to whom the credit for discovering lithium went. J. Berzelius in his latter to A. Berthollet, the famous French chemist, on February 9, 1818, described this event in the following way. A new alkali, he wrote, was discovered by I. Arfvedson, a skillful young chemist, who had been working in his laboratory for a year. Arfvedson found the alkali in the ore discovered earlier by Andrada at the Uto mine and named petalite. The ore consisted of 80 per cent silicon oxide, 17 per cent aluminium and 3 per cent the new alkali. The conventional method used to extract the alkali consisted in heating the ground ore with barium carbonate and separating all earths from it.

Analysing petalite, Arfvedson from the very beginning discovered that the losses of the material amounted to about 4 per cent. The Swedish chemist (like M. Klaproth in his time) tried to find the answer again and again, sweeping aside various assumptions, and at last reached the truth–it was a new alkali of unknown nature. It was clear that this alkali was formed by a new alkali metal. I. Arfvedson asked his teacher to help him choose the name for the metal and the scientists decided to name it “lithium” (from the Greek lithios for “stone”). This name is a reminder that lithium was discovered in the mineral kingdom whereas two other alkali metals (sodium and potassium) in the plant kingdom Arfvedson published the report on the discovery of lithium in petalite in 1819 but already in April, 1818, the scientist found the new alkali metal in other minerals as well. The secret of spodumene, which Klaproth had failed to solve, was finally cleared: the mineral contained about 8 per cent of lithium. And one more mineral, lepidolite, known for a long time, was also found to contain up to 4 per cent of the lightest alkali metal.

The German chemist K. Gmelin observed lithium salts to turn the burner flame a beautiful shade of red (to I. von Fux’s great irritation).

By the late 1818 H. Davy succeeded in separating pure lithium, though in very small amounts. It became possible to obtain large amounts of lithium only in the late 1850’s when the German chemists Bunsen and Matissen developed an industrial process of electrolysis of lithium chloride.