Lithium source found in space

Lithium source found in space
Mountains of mineral at the Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia. Photographer: Marcelo Perez del Carpio/Bloomberg

Most of the lithium on Earth was created during massive explosions in the universe.

The lithium element is incorporated into many objects. Examples include heat-resistant glass, ceramics and lithium batteries. The element is mainly extracted from certain rock species in Chile and Argentina. But how did the element actually end up on earth? In a new study, researchers looked for the source of lithium. “This is important to expand our understanding of the sources of the elements that make up our bodies and the solar system,” said study leader Sumner Starrfield.

What we know is that the first stars that formed after the Big Bang consisted almost entirely of elements like hydrogen, helium, and small amounts of lithium. Afterward, however, the amount of lithium – along with all other elements – in our universe increased, probably formed in stars. By combining theoretical models with observations and laboratory research, scientists have now determined that most of the lithium in our solar system originated during massive stellar explosions known as ‘classic novae’.

In the study, the researchers used different methods to determine the amount of lithium produced in such a nova explosion. They did this by combining computer models on how lithium is created in such an explosion, exactly how the gas is emitted and what the total chemical composition should be, with telescope observations of the emitted gas. That’s how they tried to measure the actual composition. And this shows that nova explosions are responsible for a significant portion of the measured amount of lithium in the universe.

The team has also determined that a small part of a classical nova evolves into a real supernova type la. This is the brightest type of supernova: it emits more than a billion times more energy than our sun. This allows them to be seen over long distances. Moreover, in their violent explosions, they emit many elements from which new stars and galaxies then emerge. Supernova type Ia is therefore used to study the evolution of the universe.

The research provides us with more information about exactly where the lithium in our solar system comes from. And that this comes from classic novae is quite interesting. “Our previous studies have shown that a small portion of the stardust found in meteorites in novae has formed,” said researcher Maitrayee Bose. “It means that nova explosions have contributed to the molecular cloud from which our solar system originated.” And that, in turn, means that our earth is also formed from the elements – including lithium – that were thrown away during nova explosions.