How is lithium produced?

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Lithium is a soft alkali metal element produced from salts found in natural sources such as mineral springs and brine deposits. The production process involves concentration, evaporation, and refinement to produce lithium carbonate and hydroxide. These compounds are used in various industrial and medical applications, including automotive batteries, lubricants, and pharmaceuticals. The metallic form of lithium is highly unstable and flammable, but is produced through an electrolytic process. Chile and Argentina are among the world’s largest producers of lithium.

Lithium is a soft alkali metallic element produced from salts extracted from naturally occurring mineral springs and brine deposits. A large part of the world’s lithium production is obtained using a fairly simple natural process of concentrating charged lithium salt solutions followed by evaporation and refinement. The refining process typically produces lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide in granulated form. The solid, metallic presentation of the element is produced by an electrolysis process involving the fusion of lithium chloride and potassium chloride. Despite its highly unstable elemental nature, lithium production generates compounds with many practical uses, including components in automotive batteries, lubricants, and pharmaceutical preparations.

The light gray chunks often seen floating in a glass of oil in a school lab are the metallic form of lithium. Lithium, at least in this format, has the highly unstable and flammable nature typical of all alkali metals, hence the need to store it in oil. It is, however, very useful in other forms and is used as a component in a wide variety of products. Lithium does not occur freely in nature in its elemental form and is found in ionic compounds found in a range of pegmatite minerals. These include mineral spring and ocean waters, as well as natural deposits of salt water and clay.

One of the most prolific of these natural sources are salt marshes, with Chile and Argentina among the world’s largest producers of the element. The nature of these sources means that the initial stage of lithium production is a simple process of concentration and evaporation. This occurs in large brine concentration ponds where the overall concentration of suspended lithium can rise to approximately 100% through evaporation of water from the slurry. Once the required concentration is reached, the brine is pumped to plants that produce final products of lithium carbonate and hydroxide. In most processes, potash ponds are co-located with brine ponds with potash production carried out in parallel with lithium production.

The lithium carbonate and hydroxide are then deployed for use in a wide range of industrial and medical applications. These include the manufacture of automotive batteries, high-quality lubricants such as lithium grease, and various pharmaceutical products including mood-altering drugs used to treat depression and schizoaffective disorders. They are also used in the production of ceramic and glass products, air purification components and electronic components. The highly unstable elemental metal form of lithium found in most laboratories is produced through an electrolytic process in which the chlorides of lithium and potassium are melted and not through the conventional production of lithium.

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