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by Jonathan Buhalis


beryl, A. Jonathan BuhalisBeryllium is found in the gemstone beryl, which by the late 18th century was known to be essentially identical to emerald. Both gems were supposed to be calcium aluminum silicate until French chemist Louis-Nicolas Vauquelin reported his new analysis in 1798. Vauquelin had found a sweet-tasting compound that was definitely not based on aluminum.

The new metal was eventually isolated in 1828. It gained the name beryllium after the gemstone. Early production methods were costly, and commercial production would wait until 1932. Even now, extracting pure beryllium metal from its compounds requires magnesium, which is rather more costly than coal or other inexpensive inputs used in refining other metals.

Mining and Production

Beryllium is still mined primarily from beryl. Unusually for the current era, the United States is the major supplier, delivering 74% of the 230 tons that were mined in 2017. Most of the rest came from China.

Beryllium is relatively reactive, especially with oxygen, and so refining it to the pure metal is somewhat expensive. Magnesium will reduce it as noted above. Alternatively, electrolysis can be used on a molten beryllium compound, but this is energy intensive.

Properties and Uses

Beryllium is a very lightweight grey metal with good stiffness and hardness. It conducts heat very well. With atomic number 3, it is quite transparent to hard radiation, and so beryllium is used, for example, as the window on x-ray machines.

Beryllium as a metal behaves a lot like aluminum. The two metals are diagonally adjacent on the periodic table, even though most representations of the table separate them by many columns. Therefore, beryllium has uses as a lightweight, rigid structural metal, particularly in military and aerospace applications. Examples include rocket nozzles and inertial guidance systems. Also, large metal components of satellites may be made of beryllium for minimum weight, such as the mirrors of the James Webb telescope (below).

beryllium mirror blanks of the James Webb telescope, A. Jonathan Buhalis

Beryllium is nonmagnetic. It is therefore the material of choice for making tools to work around magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, radio transmitters, and other environments with powerful magnets.

Beryllium dust is toxic when inhaled. It damages the lungs over time, and it can displace magnesium in the body's chemistry. Precautions are taken against this in refining and manufacturing. Also for this reason, several older uses of beryllium, such as in fluorescent tubes, have been discontinued.
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