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What is Beryllium?

Beryllium is the chemical element with the symbol Be and atomic number 4. It is a divalent element which only occurs naturally in combination with other elements in minerals. Notable gemstones which contain beryllium include beryl (aquamarine, emerald) and chrysoberyl. As a free element it is a steel-gray, strong, lightweight and brittle alkaline earth metal.

Beryllium is primarily used as a hardening agent in alloys, notably beryllium copper. In structural applications, high flexural rigidity, thermal stability, thermal conductivity and low density (1.85 times that of water) make beryllium a quality aerospace material for high-speed aircraft, missiles, space vehicles and communication satellites. Because of its low density and atomic mass, beryllium is relatively transparent to X-rays and other forms of ionizing radiation; therefore, it is the most common window material for X-ray equipment and in particle physics experiments. The high thermal conductivity of beryllium and beryllium oxide have led to its use in heat transport and heat sinking applications.

The commercial use of beryllium metal presents technical challenges due to the toxicity (especially by inhalation) of beryllium-containing dusts. Beryllium is corrosive to tissue, and can cause a chronic life-threatening allergic disease called berylliosis in some people. As it is not synthesized in stars, beryllium is a relatively rare element in both the Earth and the universe. The element is not known to be necessary or useful for either plant or animal life.

Physical properties

Beryllium has exceptional flexural rigidity (Young's modulus 287 GPa) and a reasonably high melting point. The modulus of elasticity of beryllium is approximately 50% greater than that of steel. The combination of this modulus and a relatively low density results in an unusually fast sound conduction speed in beryllium – about 12.9 km/s at ambient conditions. Other significant properties are high specific heat (1925 J•kg−1•K−1) and thermal conductivity (216 W•m−1•K−1), which make beryllium the metal with the best heat dissipation characteristics per unit weight. In combination with the relatively low coefficient of linear thermal expansion (11.4×10−6 K−1), these characteristics result in a unique stability under conditions of thermal loading.[3]

Nuclear properties

Beryllium has a large scattering cross section for high-energy neutrons, about 6 barns for energies above ~0.01 eV. Therefore, it effectively slows the neutrons to the thermal energy range of below 0.03 eV, where the total cross section is at least an order of magnitude lower – exact value strongly depends on the purity and size of the crystallites in the material. The predominant beryllium isotope 9Be also undergoes a (n,2n) neutron reaction to 8Be, which then instantaneously breaks into two alpha particles; that is, beryllium is a neutron multiplier, releasing more neutrons than it absorbs. This nuclear reaction is:[4]
4Be + n → 2(4
2He) + 2n
As a metal, beryllium is transparent to most wavelengths of X-rays and gamma rays, making it useful for the output windows of X-ray tubes and other such apparatus. It is also a good source for the relatively-small numbers of free neutrons in the laboratory which are liberated when beryllium nuclei are struck by energetic alpha particles[3] producing the nuclear reaction
4Be + 4
2He → 12
6C + n , where 4
2He is an alpha particle and 12
6C is a carbon-12 nucleus.[4]


Because of its high affinity for oxygen at elevated temperatures, and its ability to reduce water when its oxide film is removed, the extraction of beryllium from its compounds is a difficult process. Electrolysis of a mixture of beryllium fluoride and sodium fluoride was used to isolate beryllium during the 19th century, the metal's high melting point makes this process more energy-consuming than corresponding processes used for the alkali metals. Early in the 20th century, the production of beryllium by the thermal decomposition of beryllium iodide was investigated following the success of a similar process for the production of zirconium, but this process proved to be uneconomical for volume production.[15]

Pure beryllium metal did not become readily available until 1957, even though it had been used as an alloying metal to harden and toughen copper much earlier. Beryllium could be produced by reducing beryllium compounds such as beryllium chloride with metallic potassium or sodium. Currently most beryllium is produced by reducing beryllium fluoride with purified magnesium. The price on the American market for vacuum-cast beryllium ingots was about $338 per pound ($745 per kilogram) in 2001.[16]


The chemical equation for the key reaction is as follows:

BeF2 + Mg → MgF2 + Be

The mining and production of beryllium is dominated by one American company, Brush Wellman Inc.[17] This company smelts its beryllium ore, which contains the mineral bertrandite, and which comes mostly from the company-owned Spor Mountain deposit in the State of Utah. The smelting and other refining of the beryllium is carried out at a factory just north of Delta, Utah.[18] Between 1998 and 2008, the world's production of beryllium had decreased from 343 to about 200 tonnes, of which 176 tonnes (88%) came from the United States.[19][20]


It is estimated that most beryllium is used for military applications, so information is not readily available.


Because of its low atomic number and very low absorption for X-rays, the oldest and still one of the most important applications of beryllium is in radiation windows for X-ray tubes. Extreme demands are placed on purity and cleanliness of Be to avoid artifacts in the X-ray images. Thin beryllium foils are used as radiation windows for X-ray detectors, and the extremely low absorption minimizes the heating effects caused by high intensity, low energy X-rays typical of synchrotron radiation. Vacuum-tight windows and beam-tubes for radiation experiments on synchrotrons are manufactured exclusively from beryllium. In scientific setups for various X-ray emission studies (e.g., energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy) the sample holder is usually made of beryllium because its emitted X-rays have much lower energies (~100 eV) than X-rays from most studied materials.[3]
Low atomic number also makes beryllium relatively transparent to energetic particles. Therefore it is used to build the beam pipe around the collision region in particle physics setups, such as all four main detector experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (ALICE, ATLAS, CMS, LHCb),[32] the Tevatron and the SLAC. The low density of beryllium allows collision products to reach the surrounding detectors without significant interaction, its stiffness allows a powerful vacuum to be produced within the pipe to minimize interaction with gases, its thermal stability allows it to function correctly at temperatures of only a few degrees above absolute zero, and its diamagnetic nature keeps it from interfering with the complex multipole magnet systems used to steer and focus the particle beams.[33]

Mechanical applications

Because of its stiffness, light weight and dimensional stability over a wide temperature range, beryllium metal is used for lightweight structural components in the defense and aerospace industries in high-speed aircraft, missiles, space vehicles and communication satellites. Several liquid-fuel rockets use nozzles of pure beryllium.[34][35]

Beryllium is used as an alloying agent in the production of beryllium copper, which contains up to 2.5% beryllium. Beryllium-copper alloys are used in many applications because of their combination of high electrical and thermal conductivity, high strength and hardness, nonmagnetic properties, along with good corrosion and fatigue resistance. These applications include the making of spot welding electrodes, springs, non-sparking tools and electrical contacts.
The excellent elastic rigidity of beryllium has led to its extensive use in precision instrumentation, e.g. in gyroscope inertial guidance systems and in support structures for optical systems.[3] Beryllium-copper alloys were also applied as a hardening agent in Jason pistols, which were used to strip paint from the hulls of ships.[36]

An earlier major application of beryllium was in brakes for military aircraft because of its hardness, high melting point and exceptional heat dissipation. Environmental considerations have led to substitution by other materials.[3]


Beryllium mirrors are of particular interest. Large-area mirrors, frequently with a honeycomb support structure, are used, for example, in meteorological satellites where low weight and long-term dimensional stability are critical. Smaller beryllium mirrors are used in optical guidance systems and in fire-control systems, e.g. in the German-made Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 main battle tanks. In these systems, very rapid movement of the mirror is required which again dictates low mass and high rigidity. Usually the beryllium mirror is coated with hard electroless nickel plating which can be more easily polished to a finer optical finish than beryllium. In some applications, though, the beryllium blank is polished without any coating. This is particularly applicable to cryogenic operation where thermal expansion mismatch can cause the coating to buckle.[3]

The James Webb Space Telescope[37] will have 18 hexagonal beryllium sections for its mirrors. Because JWST will face a temperature of 33 K, the mirror is made of beryllium, capable of handling extreme cold better than glass. Beryllium contracts and deforms less than glass – and remains more uniform – in such temperatures.[38] For the same reason, the optics of the Spitzer Space Telescope are entirely built of beryllium metal.[39]

Magnetic applications

Beryllium is non-magnetic. Therefore, tools fabricated out of beryllium are used by naval or military explosive ordnance disposal teams for work on or near naval mines, since these mines commonly have magnetic fuzes.[40] They are also found in maintenance and construction materials near magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines because of the high magnetic fields generated by them.[41] In the fields of radio communications and powerful (usually military) radars, hand tools made of beryllium are used to tune the highly magnetic klystrons, magnetrons, traveling wave tubes, etc., that are used for generating high levels of microwave power in the transmitters.[42]

Nuclear applications

Thin plates or foils of beryllium are sometimes used in nuclear weapon designs as the very outer layer of the plutonium pits in the primary stages of thermonuclear bombs, placed to surround the fissile material. These layers of beryllium are good "pushers" for the implosion of the plutonium-239, and they are also good neutron reflectors, just as they are in beryllium-moderated nuclear reactors.[43]

Beryllium is also commonly used as a neutron source in laboratory experiments in which relatively few neutrons are needed (rather than having to use a nuclear reactor). For this purpose, a target of beryllium-9 is bombarded with energetic alpha particles from a radio-isotope such as polonium-210, radium-226, plutonium-239, or americium-241. In the nuclear reaction that occurs, a beryllium nucleus are transmuted into carbon-12, and one free neutron is emitted, traveling in about the same direction than the alpha particle was heading. Such neutron sources, named "urchin" neutron initiators, were used some in early atomic bombs.[43]
Beryllium is also used at the Joint European Torus nuclear-fusion research laboratory, and it will be used in the more advanced ITER to condition the components which face the plasma.[44] Beryllium has also been proposed as a cladding material for nuclear fuel rods, owing to its good combination of mechanical, chemical and nuclear properties.[3] Beryllium fluoride is one of the constituent salts of the eutectic salt mixture FLiBe, which is used as a solvent, moderator and coolant in many hypothetical molten salt reactor designs.[45]


Low weight and high rigidity of beryllium make it useful as a material for high-frequency speaker drivers. Because beryllium is expensive (many times more than titanium), hard to shape due to its brittleness, and toxic if mishandled, beryllium tweeters are limited to high-end home, pro audio and public address applications.[46][47][48] More often, beryllium is alloyed with other metals, which is sometimes not disclosed for marketing purposes.[49]


Beryllium is a p-type dopant in III-V compound semiconductors. It is widely used in materials such as GaAs, AlGaAs, InGaAs and InAlAs grown by molecular beam epitaxy (MBE). Cross-rolled beryllium sheet is an excellent structural support for printed circuit boards in surface-mount technology. In critical electronic applications, beryllium is both a structural support and heat sink. The application also requires a coefficient of thermal expansion that is well matched to the alumina and polyimide-glass substrates. The beryllium-beryllium oxide composite "E-Materials" have been specially designed for these electronic applications and have the additional advantage that the thermal expansion coefficient can be tailored to match diverse substrate materials.[3]

Beryllium oxide is useful for many applications that require the combined properties of an electrical insulator and an excellent heat conductor, with high strength and hardness, and a very high melting point. Beryllium oxide is frequently used as an insulator base plate in high-power transistors in radio frequency transmitters for telecommunications. Beryllium oxide is also being studied for use in increasing the thermal conductivity of uranium dioxide nuclear fuel pellets. Beryllium compounds were used in fluorescent lighting tubes, but this use was discontinued because of the disease berylliosis which developed in the workers who were making the tubes.

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