Making Lithium

Making Lithium

In the modern world, lithium is a vital element. It’s a key ingredient in batteries that power smartphones and cars, for example. And it’s also an important ingredient in treatments for some psychiatric problems.

Some recent research says the element may be created by exploding stars — enough of it to account for all the lithium in the galaxy.

Small amounts of lithium were created in the Big Bang. And some of those atoms are still floating around. But lithium atoms are a bit delicate. When they’re incorporated into stars, they’re easily destroyed. And so are atoms created by the stars. But a couple of exploding stars known as novae created a lot of the stuff.

A nova occurs when a small dead star steals gas from a companion star. When enough gas builds up, it triggers a nuclear explosion. The nuclear reactions can forge new elements.

That’s what astronomers have detected in a few novae. The most recent was seen a couple of years ago in Sagittarius.

To be precise, the astronomers actually saw lots of another element, beryllium. But it’s a radioactive form of the element, which quickly decays to form lithium. Given the amount of lithium formed in the explosions, and the number of novae over the lifetime of the galaxy, that could mean that stellar explosions are the main source of this important element.

And Sagittarius is low in the south at nightfall. The constellation’s brightest stars form the outline of a teapot.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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