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Kathy Feick

Lithium acquired its name from the Greek word ‘lithos,’ which means stone. Unlike the two other alkali metals, which were first discovered in plants, lithium was discovered in rocks. 

Lithium was first identified in 1817 by Johan A. Arfvedson, of Stockholm, Sweden. It was able to be isolated soon after by W.T. Brande and Humphrey Davy, but it was not commercially produced until 1923.

pieces of lithium

Lithium image source:


Lithium is a silvery-white metal. It is floats on water (though it also reacts violently) and it is in fact, the lightest metal. It is in a group of elements called Group I elements. This group contains lithium, potassium and sodium. All three of these metals are referred to as alkali metals and are highly reactive with oxygen and water. Lithium is the least reactive of the group.


  • Ceramics and glass
  • Alloys (e.g., aluminum)
  • Lubricants and greases
  • Rocket propellants
  • Underwater buoyancy devices
  • Synthetic rubber
  • Batteries
  • Pharmaceuticals

The United States is the world’s leading consumer of lithium compounds. More than half of the lithium compounds consumed are used in the manufacture of glass, ceramics and aluminum.


Pure lithium, like sodium, calcium or potassium, is a naturally occurring mineral. It is found abundantly in certain rocks, in water, and in minute amounts in plant and animal tissues. It is estimated that there is 12 million tons of lithium on earth. 

There are few lithium minerals. They are distributed in the Earth’s crust in low concentrations. The minerals lepidolite, petalite and spodumene are a few of the most important ores of lithium.

Some areas which are currently working on lithium deposits include:

  • North Carolina, USA
  • South Dakota, USA
  • Quebec, Canada (both underground and open pit)
  • Northwest Territories, Canada
  • Northern Brazil
  • Sweden
  • The Republic of South Africa

A lot of the time hard rock mining of lithium is both expensive and unnecessary. Most lithium is recovered from brines, or water with a high concentration of lithium carbonate, which is trapped in the Earth’s crust. 

lithium reacting violently and producing sparks on top of water contained in a beaker

Lithium reacting with water


Hamilton, Rosanna, & Hamilton, Calvin. (2010). Lithium. Retrieved from

Mineral Information Institute. (2011). Mineral photos: lithium. Retrieved from

Mineralszone, Initials. (2005). Lithium.