You know about metals like gold, silver, copper and platinum. But what do you know about beryllium, which is a light, silver-gray metal?
If you are like most people, chances are good that you actually know very little about it. That's too bad: although it is a relative newcomer when compared with other metals that have been used for thousands of years, beryllium is now a fascinating and useful technological workhorse that benefits us every day. Beryllium has been used in everything from cell phones to space shuttles. Many applications exist: aerospace, the defense industry, computer and telecommunication companies, medical diagnostics, and exploration for new sources of energy, among others.
Beryllium is light, is not magnetic, resists acid corrosion, absorbs a lot of heat (it has a high melting point), and can be used to strengthen other metals. In particular, beryllium and copper can be combined into an inexpensive, non-magnetic, and yet highly conductive alloy. If you've ever wondered how computer manufacturers have made computers increasingly smaller and faster, one of their indispensable secrets has been the use of beryllium.
Nicholas Louis Vauquelin, who was a French chemist and pharmacist, discovered beryllium in 1797 after a man named René Just Haüy figured out that emerald and beryl were similar to each other, and then asked Vauquelin for a chemical analysis of both types of crystals. Vauquelin was successful in determining that beryllium existed, but he was hampered by the fact that beryllium can only be found naturally in combination with other elements and minerals, which makes it hard to isolate. However, two men (Friedrich Wohler and Antoine Bussy) succeeded in doing just that in 1828. At the time, it seemed like an intellectual curiosity without much potential for commercial applications. That changed in the 1920s, when people finally began to put its unique properties to work. Copper beryllium alloys were used as conductive spring components in German telephone switchboard relays.
Beryllium is the fourth element listed in the Periodic Table, and the symbol for it is "Be." Although its weight is about two-thirds the weight of aluminum, its specific stiffness is six times more than steel. Experts estimate that the earth has 400,000 tons of it, with 364 tons being mined every year. In general, three forms are produced:
By the 1930s, medical x-ray windows used pure beryllium, and beryllia ceramics insulated the circuits in radio tubes. During World War II, its corrosion resistance made it useful in marine diesel engines; the fact that it is both light and strong made it seem ideal for parachute buckles; and it was used in high-precision instruments for navigation and targeting. Nuclear scientists in the 1940s found that beryllium moderates neutrons. More applications followed in decades after that.
The main mining sources for beryllium are Brazil, China, Germany, India, Kazakhstan, Madagascar, Russia, and the U.S, but the biggest suppliers are the U.S., China, and Kazakhstan, with the U.S. mining more beryllium than anyone else. The U.S. is also a significant exporter of beryllium.
Beryllium has proven itself to be indispensable for manufacturers of computers and cell phones. You'll also find it in base stations, FM radio, HDTV and cable television, and underwater fiber optic cable systems. In addition, beryllium's strength and stability has made possible important advances in imaging equipment, medical care that uses lasers, including diagnosis of blood for HIV and other diseases, and diagnostics. It's in pacemakers, high-resolution x-ray imaging, and mammography equipment.
The automobile industry uses beryllium for airbag sensors, power steering, electronic auto systems, and electronic braking systems. For cars and planes, it has been used to lower the amount of necessary fuel and as one component in reliable, vital equipment. Satellites for weather forecasting use it, and so do fire extinguishers, sprinkler heads, and sprinkler systems that are designed to help put out fires in buildings. It is also used as a tool for chemical detection and emergency rescue equipment.
Scientists value beryllium because it is strong, light, conducts heat, isn't magnetic, and keeps its shape despite a wide range of temperatures (both hot and cold). They took advantage of beryllium's properties more than 50 years ago to build heat shields for NASA's Mercury astronauts, a group that was introduced in Washington on April 9, 1959. It is still being used today for orbital telescopes. More recently, beryllium will be an important part of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is intended to be a replacement for the Hubble telescope in 2014 or mid- 2015. Its primary mirrors are to be constructed from optical grade beryllium that will collect light faster than the Hubble telescope… in fact, an astounding nine times faster. Scientists hope to see objects located 10 or 11 billion light years away from Earth.
The military has used beryllium for weapons, guidance systems, and surveillance and reconnaissance systems: electronic targeting; infrared countermeasure systems; and navigation systems for missiles, including those that use radar. The military also uses beryllium for helicopters, tanks, fighter planes, landing gear components, and surveillance satellites.
Energy companies have used beryllium for the extraction of oil and gas, and alternative energy companies are using it to find new sources of clean and affordable energy. Beryllium is even recyclable.
Today, the U.S. Department of Defense has said that highpurity beryllium is the only "critical" strategic material we have. Since it is an important component in so many industries - especially the ones that supply us with energy, medical care, and consumer electronics - it contributes indirectly to making work possible for hundreds of thousands of U.S. employees. But it isn't just about the jobs. Imagine life without electronic devices, medical advances, and the advantages of technological sophistication.
That life, a life without beryllium, would be much different than the one you enjoy today. And it wouldn't be an improvement.