Lithium’s Value in 21st Century Technology

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RHiNO NEAL

Lithium batteries have powered the 21st century's technology.

Braeden Fitzgerald, Section Editor

Humanity’s capability to produce usable energy has come quite a long way. It started with fire and has progressed to atomic energy. However advanced humanity has come at producing this useful energy, our ability to store this energy has always lagged behind. First, let’s start with some history of the study of electrical energy and its storage. Humanity has known of electricity since around 2750 BC in ancient Egyptian texts referring to electric fish able to produce “thunder.” The study of this “thunder” started around 600 BC with a Greek philosopher named Thales, who made observations on what is now known as static electricity. However, this energy would not be called electricity until 1600 when the Latin word “electricus” was coined by English scientist William Gilbert. 

 Now, the first primitive batteries are thought to have been produced around 250 BC in what is now modern-day Baghdad. The Baghdad battery is a ceramic pot with a copper tube on the inside, and an iron rod on the inside of the copper tube. With an electrolyte such as lemon juice is inside of the ceramic pot, the battery produces a low amount of voltage. The first object to resemble a modern-day battery was created in 1800 by an Italian physicist named Alessandro Volta. Now, the batteries that we know today are mostly powered by the element lithium. There are other types of batteries mind you, but as lithium technology has gotten more advanced over the past few decades, these other types have found themselves getting replaced. While experimentation with lithium batteries began in the early 20th century, these batteries would not be commercially successful until the 1970s. The first lithium-ion battery was created in 1985 and became commercially available in the 90s. This variation came with lower maintenance needs and the ability to produce higher current. The last major advancement to lithium batteries came with the lithium polymer battery, also known as a Li-Po,  that was created at about the same time as the lithium-ion battery. These Li-Po batteries stored the electrolyte in a solid polymer instead of a liquid-like past designs. This allowed the battery to take more complicated and smaller shapes than before. In fact, it might just be possible to make a Li-Po as slim as your average credit card. 

Now, why is lithium so much better than alkaline and lead batteries? Well, the reason is quite simple. Lithium has the greatest energy to weight ratio of any metal, meaning that it has a high energy density. In essence, if a material has a higher energy density, it should make for a better material to be used in batteries. This potential to store energy is what makes lithium one of the best materials for energy storage. These batteries paved the way for today’s consumer electronics and expensive technology. The smartphone you carry around in your pocket could not exist without lithium batteries. In fact, phones would still probably still be the size of a brick. The power output, energy storage, and overall stability of lithium batteries is necessary for many more fragile pieces of technology in today’s society. For example, pacemakers are one piece of technology that depends on lithium batteries to function for long periods of time. 

Actually, many electronic technologies use lithium batteries, as they are common and pretty useful. The only other really common type of battery is the lead-acid battery that finds usage due to its low cost and ability to put out high current. Today’s world would be very different without the advancement of batteries to include lithium in their design. We would be without many important technologies, simply because they couldn’t be powered. Perhaps the most prevalent issue would be the fact that we wouldn’t have smartphones, which can be a good or bad thing depending on your stance. 

So, lithium is the element that has powered 21st century technology and its creation. Without it our computers would still be in the 80’s. However, what comes next for humanity? Will our technology advance farther than ever before? Will our technology remain the same? Could it possibly regress in the future? The only way we can find out, is to wait.