Monthly Archives: July 2013

Fun Science: The Element Lithium

Lithium is the third element on the periodic table, after hydrogen and helium. It is the lightest metal, and you probably use it every day. The batteries in your phones and laptops and most rechargeable batteries you use are lithium ion batteries.

Lithium is used in batteries because it has the highest electrochemical potential of any element. It is so high that it will split water into hydrogen and oxygen (and violently!). This means there is a lot of energy available to exploit. This is also why laptop batteries can sometimes explode; the batteries are sealed very tightly, but if the seal is broken, air and water vapor will come in contact with the lithium and this is unsafe. 10-15 years ago, there weren’t as many lithium batteries in use, but now they are everywhere. Science has made great strides in improving the configurations of the batteries to give more energy, such as increasing the surface area of the lithium portion. Each time you cycle your battery, the lithium undergoes an electrochemical reaction on the draining and again on the charging of the battery. This is also why batteries become shorter lived over time; the high surface areas of new batteries aren’t thermodynamically favorable, and the lithium will become lower surface area with time. Less available surface area means less available energy.

Lithium ion (Li+) has another, very different use. It is used as a mood stabilizer. It is particularly useful at combatting mania. The linked wikipedia page contains its fascinating medical history. It was first used in the 1870’s as a mood stabilizer. Eventually LiCl was marketed as an alternative to table salt (NaCl), to avoid high blood pressure, and its mood properties were forgotten. Early versions of 7 Up contained lithium. Excessive lithium use was found to be deadly, and it was banned as an additive in the 1940s. Then in Australia, it was again discovered to have mood-stabilizing properties. Its therapeutic dose is quite close to its toxic dose, which is maybe why it took a while to gain approval in the US. Studies suggest that water supplies containing lithium may promote longevity and reduce the occurrence of suicide.

Lithium salts also have another really nifty use: cleansing the air in spaceships and submarines.  Not only does human breathing consume oxygen; it also produces carbon dioxide, which is toxic when present in high amounts. Several lithium salts can remove carbon dioxide from the air. One even adds oxygen to the air when it removes carbon dioxide.

Elemental lithium is highly reactive, and is a member of the alkali metal group (all of whom react very impressively with water). Below is a video of lithium reacting with water. It bursts into bright red flame:

Another video shows more lithium action:

The people who made the second video have a great youtube channel with videos about all the elements done in a university laboratory environment. Most of them have good footage of reactions as well. I just spent an hour watching their videos, they are very entertaining for people with little knowledge, or a lot. If you have a little time to kill, the videos of sodium and potassium are also good, flammable fun.

Writing children’s books

This summer I am taking a class about writing children’s books. I became interested in writing children’s books because I really love writing with illustrations. Before this summer, I hadn’t had the opportunity to just sit down and discuss for hours at a time what the children’s market demands. I probably had wrongly assumed it was pretty easy to write a children’s book, because they are pretty simple books and I think a lot of the books on the market are simplistic and unattractive.

Indeed, it is easy to write a book for children, but it’s a lot harder to sell one. Children’s books have structure I wasn’t aware of (most of them are exactly 32 pages, example), and there is a ton of competition. In 200 words, it’s harder to stand out than in 10,000. An interesting guide-book we have looked at in class is “Writing Picture Books” by Ann Whitford Paul. Her book goes over all the steps necessary to prepare a manuscript for a children’s picture book. We have done some exercises in our class like writing a young child’s concept book or rewriting a fairy tale, both of which have been fun exercises. I still have a little trouble writing as simply as is required for such ages, but we always have something to improve.

I think writing for children can also be of interest to people only interested in writing for adults. Children’s demands aren’t that different from those of adults– snappy language, quick action, relatable characters. In kids books, the author must try to have scenes with visualizable illustrations, and adults like to have mental images of what they read as well. Kids books are often under 1000 words, so they are a very doable exercise length. If you’re interested, I recommend giving it a try. At worse, you’ll just have some fun and feel a bit childish!  =)

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Photography in the American West

This week I visited Moab, Utah. I stand-up (and fall-down) paddled on the Colorado River during a thunderstorm, I hiked in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and I stargazed. Most of all, I ravenously took pictures.

SONY DSC

Delicate Arch from across a gorge in Arches National Park

SONY DSC

Landscape Arch in Arches National Park

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National ParkMesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

Green River overlook in Canyonlands National Park

Green River overlook in Canyonlands National Park

Milky Way over the red rocks in the Colorado River valley

Milky Way over the red rocks in the Colorado River valley

The Colorado River valley

The Colorado River valley

Park Avenue in Arches National Park

The Gossips in Arches National Park

The Gossips in Arches National Park
Arches National Park

Arches National Park