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Lithium (from Greek: λίθος lithos, "stone") is a chemical element with the symbol Li and atomic number 3. It is a soft, silver-white metal belonging to the alkali metal group of chemical elements. Under standard conditions, it is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly reactive and flammable. For this reason, it is typically stored in mineral oil. When cut open, it exhibits a metallic luster, but contact with moist air corrodes the surface quickly to a dull silvery gray, then black tarnish. Because of its high reactivity, lithium never occurs freely in nature, and instead, appears only in compounds, which are usually ionic. Lithium occurs in a number of pegmatitic minerals, but due to its solubility as an ion, is present in ocean water and is commonly obtained from brines and clays. On a commercial scale, lithium is isolated electrolytically from a mixture of lithium chloride and potassium chloride.

The nucleus of the lithium atom verges on instability, since the two stable lithium isotopes found in nature have among the lowest binding energies per nucleon of all stable nuclides. Because of its relative nuclear instability, lithium is less common in the solar system than 25 of the first 32 chemical elements even though the nuclei are very light in atomic weight.[3] For related reasons, lithium has important links to nuclear physics. The transmutation of lithium atoms to helium in 1932 was the first fully man-made nuclear reaction, and lithium-6 deuteride serves as a fusion fuel in staged thermonuclear weapons.[4]

Lithium and its compounds have several industrial applications, including heat-resistant glass and ceramics, lithium grease lubricants, flux additives for iron, steel and aluminium production, lithium batteries, and lithium-ion batteries. These uses consume more than three quarters of lithium production.

Lithium is found in variable amounts in foods; primary food sources are grains and vegetables; in some areas, the drinking water also provides significant amounts of the element. Human dietary lithium intakes depend on location and the type of foods consumed and vary over a wide range. Traces of lithium were detected in human organs and fetal tissues already in the late 19th century, leading to early suggestions as to possible specific functions in the organism. However, it took another century until evidence for the essentiality of lithium became available. In studies conducted from the 1970s to the 1990s, rats and goats maintained on low-lithium rations were shown to exhibit higher mortalities as well as reproductive and behavioral abnormalities. In humans defined lithium deficiency diseases have not been characterized, but low lithium intakes from water supplies were associated with increased rates of suicides, homicides and the arrest rates for drug use and other crimes. Lithium appears to play an especially important role during the early fetal development as evidenced by the high lithium contents of the embryo during the early gestational period. The biochemical mechanisms of action of lithium appear to be multifactorial and are intercorrelated with the functions of several enzymes, hormones and vitamins, as well as with growth and transforming factors. The available experimental evidence now appears to be sufficient to accept lithium as essential; a provisional RDA for a 70 kg adult of 1,000 microg/day is suggested.[5] [6][7]

The lithium ion Li+ administered as any of several lithium salts has proved to be useful as a mood-stabilizing drug in the treatment of bipolar disorder in humans.

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