Lithium History
NOW THE WORLD IS AT YOUR FINGERTIPS…

As early as 1912, G. N. Lewis began exploring the possibility of lithium batteries, but it was not until 80 years later that the first commercially-viable rechargeable lithium ion battery was produced. What an invention! Who could have imagined just 20 years ago the turned on, the connected, mobile society we have today. While many inventions have improved life since the early 20th Century, the development of the lithium battery stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the development of the semiconductor chip in making real the possibility of our modern, mobile society.

Lithium is a versatile mineral that may well be the most used, yet least recognized, element on the periodic table. Products with lithium are used all around us in our laboratories, factories, and homes.

While lithium is found in minerals, clays, and brines in many parts of the world, high-grade lithium ores and brines are the primary sources for all commercial lithium production. Regardless of the source of lithium, our cell phones, laptops, tablets, glass stove tops, ceramic sinks, EV cars, cholesterol fighting drugs, airplanes and even high performance car tires employ lithium in manufacturing processes, if not in final products.

EARLY YEARS—THE DISCOVERY OF LITHIUM

Large rock form of SpodumeneSwedish scientist Johan August Arfwedson discovered the third element in the periodic table in 1817 while analyzing a mineral called spodumene. Since the new element had been found in chunks of spodumene ore, Arfwedson called it "lithium," from the Greek word for stone.

Lithium, 40 years after its discovery, was a laboratory curiosity, even though there is early evidence that it was used to dissolve uric acid deposits (kidney stones) associated with gout. Not until 1855 did Thomas Brande isolate it as a free metal.

FLASH FORWARD TO THE MILLENIUM

Man looking into microscopeThe Salar del Hombre Muerto boosted production capacity. In 2004, FMC Lithium developed a revolutionary Anode lithiation technology called Stabilized Lithium Metal Powder (SLMP®). SLMP is believed to have wide-reaching impact on lithium performance. Furthering it’s commitment to applied research and to customer collaboration, the Company opened a research laboratory -- the Center for Lithium Energy Advanced Research (CLEAR) lab in 2008. In the CLEAR lab, customers can conduct and test new applications for lithium along side FMC scientists.

In 2011, FMC Lithium began construction of a 30 percent capacity expansion at its Argentina brine resource. Today the company continues expansion of primary salts, metals, and organics.

THE 1990’s

In 1991, FMC Lithium, after entering the energy storage market as a supplier of lithium salts, supplied commercial lithium carbonate to Sony Electronics for the first lithium cobaltate battery production. Just four years later, in 1995, FMC Lithium began supplying advanced lithium materials for the cathode market.

In 1995, FMC Lithium facilitated two major breakthroughs in the development of a brine-based resource for lithium. First, FMC Lithium purchased the Salar del Hombre Muerto, an Argentine salar containing high uniform concentrations of lithium with low levels of other contaminants. Brine-based deposits hold high concentrations of lithium in ranges from 200 to 2000 parts per million which can be further concentrated using solar evaporation. Second, FMC perfected and commercialized a selective purification process that extracts lithium chloride from the salar brine in a 95+ pure form with minimal processing.

arial image of Salar del HombreThe Salar del Hombre Muerto is located in the high Andes (13,200 feet above sea level) about 850 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. The location is convenient to major rail lines and seaports. Covering a smaller area than most salars of the region, it contains lithium brines at depths much greater than its neighbors. Lithium reserves are sufficient for well over 75 years.



1950's THROUGH 1960's

Electric range heating a flat bottom wok and 3 fresh eggsThe U.S. space program, in the 1950s and 1960s ushered in a quest for materials that could withstand the extreme temperatures of high-speed travel through the atmosphere. Aerospace engineers designed a lithium-ceramic composition that expanded very little and resisted cracking during the rapid extreme temperature changes of space flight. Called “pyroceram,” this material was the forerunner of modern glass-ceramic cookware that resists thermal cracking.

Airbus A380 from the frontDuring this period lithium hydroxide was deployed for rebreather systems in space suits for Apollo Missions. Today aluminum lithium alloys are used for a wide array of aircraft, including as a skin for satellites, telescopes, and spacecraft.




THE POST-WAR YEARS

Post-war research revealed that greases containing lithium stearate retained their lubricating properties across a wide range of temperatures. This led to the introduction of innovative greases that could be used for multiple purposes over a wide range of operating conditions.

closeup of some large working gearsIn 1953, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) required large amounts of lithium hydroxide for use in the production of thermonuclear weapons. The U. S. government was the largest consumer of lithium and sustained the industry during the 1950s. Expiration of the AEC contracts spurred an industry-wide research effort driving development in small commercial markets.

Traditonal bathroom sinkIn time, the industry soon became a well-established supplier to basic industries such as ceramics, lubrication, aluminum reduction, and pharmaceuticals. During this time, Lithium Corporation of America was purchased by FMC Lithium and continued its open mining operation in Bessemer City, N.C.

This burst of research, as well as the FMC purchase, yielded the infancy of low-sodium lithium metal used in energy storage that eventually led to rechargeable lithium ion batteries, a mainstay of our mobile lives today.

THE WAR YEARS

Lithium poured into a containerThe war years ushered in growing demand for lithium. With the onset of World War II, the U.S. Army needed a compact, lightweight source of hydrogen for use in emergency signaling balloons. Lithium hydride was ideal for this purpose because one pound of lithium hydride reacts with seawater to generate 45 cubic feet of hydrogen.

In 1942, Lithium Corporation of America was founded by the US government for production of Lithium 7in the Manhattan Project for the development of the hydrogen bomb.

EARLY YEARS—COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

Seventy years after Brande’s work isolating lithium as a free metal, a German Industrial conglomerate became the first company to commercially produce lithium-bearing minerals. Lithium-bearing minerals have broad industrial applications today, including use as exotic additives to ceramic compositions.

Traditonal bathroom sinkAfter a brief stint in the late-20’s producing a carbonated orange-flavored drink called “Whistle,” Charles Leiper Grigg discarded soft drink colas, ales, and beers for a new lemon-lime flavored soda. In the early 30’s, Grigg produced a “lithiated” drink he called Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Line Soda. Grigg’s promotion of the new drink centered the healthful aspects of the drink, healthful aspects that stemmed from lithium’s benefit of evening out moods swings. Initially marketed as a hangover cure that “takes the ‘ouch’ out of grouch,” the public welcomed the new drink but rejected the long product name. In 1936, after multiple name iterations, the drink became known simply as 7Up, the name it is known by today.