Uses of Beryllium
Beryllium is a strategic and critical material used in many products essential for national security
Republished from USGS Fact Sheet 2012-3056
Beryllium telescope mirror: View of the back of one of the 18 beryllium mirror segments for the James Webb Space Telescope. The ribs at the back of the mirror help to maintain the mirror’s strength and ability to hold its shape under extreme conditions. The front of the mirror is completely smooth and coated in a thin-film of gold. Photograph courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Photo courtesy of NASA.
A Strategic and Critical Metal
Beryllium is one of the lightest and stiffest metals, but there was little industrial demand for it until the 1930s and 1940s when the aerospace, defense, and nuclear sectors began using beryllium and its compounds. Beryllium is now classified by the U.S. Department of Defense as a strategic and critical material because it is used in products that are vital to national security.
The oxide form of beryllium was identified in 1797, and scientists first isolated metallic beryllium in 1828. Beryllium and some beryllium compounds are toxic and must be handled carefully. Workplace related exposures to dusts or fumes of beryllium and beryllium compounds are known to cause serious health problems, such as cancer or chronic beryllium disease, which is an immune system response that can damage the lungs. Proper workplace practices prevent these exposures.
Uses of Beryllium
Beryllium-copper alloys account for approximately 80 percent of the beryllium used in the United States. These alloys are strong, hard, and nonmagnetic; they are good conductors of electricity and heat, and they resist corrosion and fatigue. Beryllium alloys are used in making connectors, springs, switches, and other components of electronic and electrical devices for aerospace, automobile, computer, defense, medical, telecommunications, and other products.
Beryllium in aerospace: The U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and many other aerospace vehicles rely on electrical and mechanical components made of beryllium alloys. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.
|Did You Know? Beryllium pipes house the beams of subatomic particles in the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland.
Physical Properties of Beryllium
Beryllium metal is very light and very stiff-on a weight-to-weight basis, beryllium is six times stiffer than steel, and it maintains its shape at high and low temperatures. Beryllium metal is used in the aerospace and defense industries to make lightweight precision instruments.
The mirrors of the Spitzer Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is scheduled for launch in 2018, are made of beryllium. The primary mirror of the JWST contains 18 hexagonal segments (each segment is 4.3 feet in diameter) that must maintain their exact shape even at temperatures of -400 degrees Fahrenheit and must be light enough to be carried into orbit; the telescope will operate approximately 1 million miles above Earth.
Beryllium is almost transparent to x-rays, and beryllium foil is used as window material in x-ray and other radiation machines. In nuclear reactors, beryllium metal and beryllium oxide are used to control fission reactions. Beryllium has also been used in the trigger mechanisms for nuclear weapons.
Beryl gems: Four varieties of gemstone-quality beryl: from back left, going clockwise: morganite (pinkish-orange),heliodor (yellow), green beryl (pale green), aquamarine (blue-green).
Where Does Beryllium Come From?
Two minerals, bertrandite and beryl, are mined for beryllium, and both are found in association with igneous rocks. All the beryllium currently being mined in the United States comes from the mineral bertrandite.
A complex series of events must take place to concentrate beryllium into bertrandite. First, a magma that is rich in fluorine, beryllium, and silica must erupt in an area where there are carbonate rocks (limestone or dolomite). If heat from the magma warms the groundwater in the area and causes the water to move through the surrounding rocks, the water picks up elements, including beryllium, from those rocks; the water may then react with suitable igneous or sedimentary rocks to crystallize minerals, including bertrandite.
The mineral beryl is the main source of beryllium mined outside the United States. Beryl is most often found in veins or pegmatites, which are rocks that contain the last minerals to crystallize from a large igneous intrusion. Pegmatites are distinguished by large interlocking crystals that often include unusual elements and minerals.