It would be striking to learn that Lithium’s name is derived from the greek word lithos – stone, a word which itself comes from ‘litos’ meaning simple or plain. It would be amazing to learn that it was named in this way by Arfwedson and Berzelius in 1817 with prophetic knowledge of its physical and chemical simplicity. But this is not the case. Instead the naming was somewhat arbitrary, only being baptized lithium because the ore was a solid mineral.
Yet albeit coincidentally, Lithium’s discoverers had named it fittingly: lithium is quite a simple element, only consisting of three weakly bound protons and a couple of other subatomic particles. Lithium salts ignite with a deep primary red flame, Lithium-based greases have been making the world go round since World War II and high levels of lithium ions in water supplies have been linked to lower rates of suicide. Time and time again, lithium has found its use in the world (and its imprint is large) in very simple forms and ways.
One of those ways is in Lithium Ion (‘Li-Ion’) batteries. Batteries store chemical energy and can convert it to electrical energy when a load, such as a motor, is placed between their terminals. The combinations of anode, cathode, separator and electrolyte contribute to the overall characteristics in interesting ways. For example, Zinc-carbon batteries are extremely cheap and easy to make, but their combination of carbon and zinc makes for a low energy density (how much energy a battery can store for its size). Conversely, Lead-acid batteries are slightly more expensive, have an internal reaction that allows rechargeability but also contain concentrated acids and toxic metals which are harmful for the environment.
Lithium-Ion batteries are a newer technology. Due to the fact that lithium has a low density and has a small ionic radius, it makes cells that have very high energy densities. To add to this, the batteries that can be produced tend to hold their charge for very long periods of time without fading, and can operate over many hundreds or even thousands of charge-discharge cycles. But this technology is improving with every day that passes, with higher charge densities being accomplished with innovations such as graphene electrodes and safety being ensured with the inclusion of elements such as cobalt and nickel.
Companies such as Tesla plan to make Li-Ion batteries much more of a big deal, too. Unveiled earlier this year, the Powerwall would have the capacity to store vast amounts of energy collected through solar panels and provide backup power to homes with unreliable energy supplies. This just adds to Tesla’s apparent domination of the electric car market along with Nissan, and all of this will only increase the already high demand for compounds such as Lithium Hydroxide and Lithium Carbonate. Last year, Tesla sold around 75,000 of its Model S variety of electric car, but plans to have competed a ‘gigafactory’ in Nevada capable of producing half a million cars by 2017.
This is all very impressive, but how much (lithium) salt should these numbers and claims be taken with? One wonders whether enough people will really fork out the high price tags for the batteries and cars or whether the products will remain the droolfodder of geeks. In the news recently was a story about the london routemaster buses, which were hailed upon their introduction in 2012 as revolutionary. Although the buses are fitted with large batteries as well as diesel generators, recent numbers suggest that almost all of the buses (8-9/10) have resorted to using the environmentally problematic diesel all of the time because their batteries have begun to wane. Although Transport for London attempts to reassure by saying that the batteries are under warranty and will be replaced, one wonders whether a battery pack costing tens of thousands of pounds should lose its oomph so soon.