Lithium: historical information

  • Discoveror: Johan August Arfvedson
  • Place of discovery: Stockholm, Sweden
  • Date of discovery: 1817
  • Origin of name : from the Greek word "lithos" meaning "stone", apparently because it was discovered from a mineral source whereas the other two common Group 1 elements, sodium and potassium, were discovered from plant sources..

The mineral petalite (which contains lithium) was discovered by the Brazilian scientist José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva towards the end of the 18th century while visiting Sweden. Lithium was discovered by Johan August Arfvedson in 1817 during an analysis of petalite ore, an ore now recognised to be LiAl(Si2O5)2, taken from the Swedish island of Utö. Arfvedson subsequently discovered lithium in the minerals spodumene and lepidolite. C.G. Gmelin observed in 1818 that lithium salts colour flames bright red. Neither Gmelin nor Arfvedson were able to isolate the element itself from lithium salts, for example in attempted reductions by heating the oxide with iron or carbon.

The first isolation of elemental lithium was achieved later by W.T. Brande and Sir Humphrey Davy by the electrolysis of lithium oxide. In 1855, Bunsen and Mattiessen isolated larger quantities of the metal by electrolysis of lithium chloride.

In 1923 the first commercial production of lithium metal was achieved by Metallgesellschaft AG in Germany using the electrolysis of a molten mixture of lithium chloride and potassium chloride, exploiting a suggestion made by Guntz in 1893.

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