Thursday, April 29, 2010
Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal that belongs to the alkali metal group of chemical elements. It is represented by the symbol Li, and it has the atomic number 3. Under standard conditions it is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly reactive, corroding quickly in moist air to form a black tarnish. For this reason, lithium metal is typically stored under the cover of petroleum. When cut open, lithium exhibits a metallic luster, but contact with oxygen quickly turns it back to a dull silvery gray color. Lithium in its elemental state is highly flammable.
The nuclei of lithium are relatively fragile: the two stable lithium isotopes found in nature have lower binding energies per nucleon than any other stable compound nuclides, save deuterium, and helium-3 (3He). Though very light in atomic weight, lithium is less common in the solar system than 25 of the first 32 chemical elements.
Because of its high reactivity, lithium only appears naturally in the form of compounds. Lithium occurs in a number of pegmatitic minerals, but is also commonly obtained from brines and clays. On a commercial scale, lithium metal is isolated electrolytically from a mixture of lithium chloride and potassium chloride.
Trace amounts of lithium are present in the oceans and in some organisms, though the element serves no apparent vital biological function in humans. The lithium ion Li+ administered as any of several lithium salts has proved to be useful as a mood stabilizing drug due to neurological effects of the ion in the human body. Lithium and its compounds have several industrial applications, including heat-resistant glass and ceramics, high strength-to-weight alloys used in aircraft, and lithium batteries. Lithium also has important links to nuclear physics. The transmutation of lithium atoms to tritium was the first man-made form of a nuclear fusion reaction, and lithium deuteride serves as a fusion fuel in staged thermonuclear weapons.