The Brittle Element Beryllium

The Element Beryllium

The Element Beryllium

Introduction to Beryllium

Although you have probably learned a great deal about the periodic table over the years, you may not be very familiar with the element beryllium. Beryllium is a lightweight, strong, steel-gray metal. It is also quite brittle, meaning it breaks easily under stress but tends not to deform until the moment it fractures (similar to glass or ceramic). Beryllium occurs naturally in over 100 different minerals and has a wide range of applications in the world today. Read on to learn more about the element beryllium!

Ten Interesting & Fun Facts About Beryllium

  1. The United States is the world’s largest producer of beryllium with approximately 170 metric tons mined in 2021. China is the world’s second-largest producer of beryllium with 70 metric tons mined in 2021.
  2. In 1932, English physicist James Chadwick discovered the neutron while conducting an experiment with beryllium.
  3. The James Webb Space Telescope, launched in December 2021 and located nearly one million miles away from the Earth, contains mirrors made of beryllium.
  4. Aquamarine and emerald are the most precious forms of beryl, a beryllium-containing mineral with the chemical formula Be3Al2(SiO3)6
  5. The Formula One (F1) rules committee banned beryllium engine components in 2000. This was mainly due to the metal’s toxicity but also because of its expensiveness (as its use may serve as an unfair advantage to higher-budget teams).
  6. Beryllium has an estimated crustal abundance of 2.8 milligrams per kilogram and an estimated oceanic abundance of 5.6 x 10-6 milligrams per liter.
  7. The stiffness (i.e., elastic modulus) of beryllium is roughly 4 times greater than that of aluminum, 2.5 times greater than that of titanium, and 1.5 times greater than that of steel. Beryllium also has the greatest stiffness to weight ratio of any metal.
  8. Because of its chemical similarity to magnesium, beryllium can displace magnesium from enzymes in the human body. This typically causes the enzymes to malfunction and can potentially lead to dire consequences.
  9. Some dental materials (such as crowns, bridges, and partial denture frameworks) use beryllium-containing alloys to improve castability and bond strength.
  10. Beryllium often plays an important role in nuclear facilities. It serves as a neutron reflector in fission reactors and as a plasma-facing material in fusion reactors.
Beryllium Mirrors of the James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope’s primary mirror, consisting of 18 hexagonal mirror segments made of gold-plated beryllium.

Beryllium in the Periodic Table

The element beryllium has the symbol Be and atomic number 4, meaning there are 4 protons in the nucleus of a beryllium atom. Additionally, a neutral atom of beryllium has four electrons located outside the nucleus. Although beryllium has 12 different isotopes, beryllium-9 is its only stable isotope, containing 5 neutrons in its nucleus.

Belonging to Group 2 of the periodic table, beryllium is classified as an alkaline earth metal, along with the elements magnesium, calcium, strontium, barium, and radium. It is located in Period 2, directly to the right of lithium, and occupies the s-block, which includes the alkali metals, the alkaline earth metals, and the nonmetals hydrogen and helium. Beryllium has two valence electrons and an electron configuration of 1s22s2, which can be shortened to [He] 2s2. It also has an electronegativity value of 1.57 on the Pauling scale.

Is Beryllium Toxic?

Exposure to beryllium (as well as its compounds and alloys) can cause severe health problems. Those exposed, typically by inhalation of beryllium dust or fumes, are at risk of developing a chronic lung disease known as berylliosis. This condition most commonly affects individuals working in industries where beryllium is mined or processed. Beryllium is also considered to be carcinogenic to humans, as it is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer. In recent years, corporations have begun to take significant precautions to limit beryllium exposure and ensure the safety of their workers.

Alloys of Beryllium

The majority of commercially produced beryllium is used in alloys with other metallic elements (such as copper, aluminum, nickel, and iron). When combined with base metals (that are more common, easier to extract, and less expensive), beryllium can have a significant impact on the properties of the resulting alloys. The most widely used beryllium-containing alloy is beryllium copper, which typically contains only 0.5-3.0% beryllium (by weight). Beryllium copper has a unique combination of strength, conductivity, hardness, corrosion resistance, formability, and non-magnetic/non-sparking qualities that makes it quite useful to manufacturers in a variety of industries. 

Beryllium-Copper Wrench
An adjustable wrench made from a beryllium-copper alloy.

Beryllium’s Applications in Today’s World

What Is Beryllium Used For?

Because of its unique and desirable properties, beryllium has a seemingly countless number of uses in the world today. Described in further detail below are a few of the element’s most notable applications.

Beryllium in the Aerospace and Defense Industries

The aerospace and defense industries commonly utilize beryllium metal as a lightweight structural component for high-speed aircraft, spacecraft, guided missiles, and satellites. For example, in military fighter jets, pure beryllium reduces overall weight, allowing the aircraft to quickly reach high speeds and increasing their maneuverability. Beryllium has been used in aircraft braking systems as well due to its hardness, high melting point, and ability to dissipate heat. It is also used extensively in the gyroscopes, accelerometers, and computer parts of inertial guidance systems to ensure precise operation under extreme conditions. The United States Department of Defense even classifies beryllium as a strategic and critical material because of its use in products deemed vital to national security.

Beryllium in X-Ray Tubes

One of the major components of an X-ray imaging system is the X-ray tube, which converts electrical energy into X-rays that produce internal images of the human body. X-ray tubes commonly use thin beryllium foils as radiation windows for X-ray detectors. Because of its low density and low atomic mass, beryllium has very low absorption of X-rays. As a result, it allows X-rays to pass through while also having enough strength to maintain the vacuum (i.e., free space) required for the X-ray tube to operate. Another metal used for the detector entrance windows of X-ray tubes is aluminum; however, manufacturers often prefer beryllium because it is less fragile and much more penetrable by X-rays.

Where is Beryllium Found?

Although more than 100 different minerals contain beryllium, most of these minerals are extremely rare or at least very uncommon. The two most common beryllium-containing minerals are beryl and bertrandite. These minerals are found all over the world in countries such as the United States, China, India, Argentina, Brazil, Russia, and Madagascar. The United States is by far the world’s largest beryllium mine producer, and the Spor Mountain district (located in Juab County, Utah) is currently the largest supplier of beryllium in the United States.

Beryl and Bertrandite
The two most common beryllium-containing minerals: beryl (left) and bertrandite (right).

When and How Was Beryllium Discovered?

In 1798, French mineralogist René Just Haüy observed the crystal structure of the precious gemstone emerald was identical to that of the common mineral beryl. As a result, he asked chemist Louis Nicolas Vauquelin to perform a chemical analysis. Vauquelin was able to prove that emerald and beryl have the same chemical composition. In addition, he discovered a new substance (beryllium oxide) and realized that this substance contained an unknown element. Because of its sweet taste, the element was originally given the name glucinium (derived from the Greek word glykys, meaning “sweet”).

In 1828, German chemist Friederich Wöhler and French chemist Antoine Bussy were each able to isolate pure beryllium by reacting metallic potassium with beryllium chloride, as shown in the following chemical equation: BeCl2 + 2 K → 2 KCl + Be. Wöhler did not like the name glucinium and instead preferred beryllium (derived from berrylos, the Greek word for beryl). The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) selected beryllium as the element’s name in 1949 and made this decision official in 1957.

Beryllium Chemistry – Compounds, Reactions, Oxidation States

Chemical Properties of Beryllium

Beryllium is the least reactive alkaline earth metal; it has the smallest atomic radius and highest ionization energy of all the Group 2 elements. The surface of beryllium metal forms an oxide passivation layer that protects it from further oxidation or corrosion under normal conditions. Beryllium dissolves readily in non-oxidizing acids (such as HCl or diluted H2SO4) and alkali solutions; however, it is insoluble in water. Furthermore, beryllium and aluminum exhibit similar properties due to their diagonal relationship in the periodic table.

Beryllium Compounds

Unlike other alkaline earth metals, beryllium generally forms covalent compounds (rather than ionic compounds) due to the high polarization power of the Be2+ ion. Beryllium compounds are often colorless and can be quite toxic. Described in further detail below are a few of the most common beryllium compounds.

Beryllium Oxide

Beryllium oxide, commonly known as beryllia, has the chemical formula BeO and is a white, amorphous solid in its pure form. The compound was originally named glucina (because of its sweet taste) and occurs in nature as the mineral bromellite. It is amphoteric, meaning it can act as either an acid or a base. Beryllia is unique in that it combines excellent electrical insulating properties (e.g., dielectric strength and resistivity) with high thermal conductivity. In addition, its high melting point of 2507 ℃ (4545 ℉) has led to its use as a refractory material. It is possible to prepare beryllium oxide by dehydrating beryllium hydroxide, calcining beryllium carbonate, or igniting metallic beryllium with oxygen gas (as shown in the reactions below).

Be(OH)2 → BeO + H2O

BeCO3 → BeO + CO2

2 Be + O2 → 2 BeO

Beryllium Chloride

Beryllium chloride has the chemical formula BeCl2 and is a colorless, crystalline solid. BeCl2 readily attracts water from its surroundings and is therefore considered to be a hygroscopic compound. It also dissolves well in many polar solvents. BeCl2 catalyzes Friedel-Crafts reactions and is used as a raw material during the electrolytic extraction of beryllium. Beryllium metal can react with chlorine or dilute hydrochloric acid in order to prepare beryllium chloride. Additionally, beryllium chloride can be prepared by the carbothermal reduction of beryllium oxide in the presence of chlorine. Shown below are the balanced chemical equations for these three methods of synthesis.

Be + Cl2 → BeCl2

Be + 2HCl → BeCl2 + H2

BeO + Cl2 + C → BeCl2 + CO

Beryllium Fluoride

Beryllium fluoride has the chemical formula BeF2 and is an odorless, glassy solid. It is the beryllium compound with the most ionic character (on account of fluorine being the most electronegative element). Like beryllium chloride, BeF2 is hygroscopic and very soluble in water. Beryllium fluoride serves as an intermediate in the production of beryllium and beryllium alloys. It is also used in nuclear reactors, glass manufacture, and protein x-ray crystallography.

Beryllium fluoride can be prepared from beryllium hydroxide through the following two-step process. First, beryllium hydroxide reacts with ammonium bifluoride to produce ammonium beryllium fluoride (also called ammonium tetrafluoroberyllate). Then, ammonium tetrafluoroberyllate thermally decomposes to produce beryllium fluoride. The reactions involved in this process are shown below.

Step 1: Be(OH)2 + 2 (NH4)HF2 → (NH4)2BeF4 + 2 H2O

Step 2: (NH4)2BeF4 → 2 NH3 + 2 HF + BeF2

Beryllium Hydroxide

Beryllium hydroxide has the chemical formula Be(OH)2 and is a white, crystalline substance. Although other Group 2 hydroxides (e.g., calcium hydroxide and magnesium hydroxide) are basic, beryllium hydroxide is amphoteric and dissolves in both acids and alkalis. Pure beryllium hydroxide occurs naturally as the rare minerals behoite and clinobehoite. Be(OH)2 is synthesized as a by-product during the extraction of beryllium from its chief ores. Furthermore, beryllium hydroxide dehydrates at 400 ℃ to form beryllium oxide.

Isolation of Beryllium

Beryllium metal is most commonly extracted from two ores: beryl and bertrandite. Beryl ore contains roughly 2-4% beryllium, while bertrandite ore typically contains less than 0.5% beryllium. The refining processes of beryl and bertrandite are quite similar and can be carried out together. However, because of its added hardness, beryl must first be melted in an electric arc furnace and plunged into a pool of water to form a fine powder known as frit.

Frit and crushed bertrandite ore are initially treated with sulfuric acid to produce a water-soluble sulfate. The beryllium-containing sulfate solution undergoes a series of extraction steps that remove iron, aluminum, and other impurities. The resulting beryllium concentrate is treated with ammonium carbonate and heated, resulting in the precipitation of beryllium hydroxide. Beryllium hydroxide is then dissolved in an ammonium bifluoride solution and heated to form beryllium fluoride. Lastly, magnesium reduces beryllium fluoride into pure beryllium metal.

Beryllium Oxidation States

The oxidation state (also known as oxidation number) of an element refers to the total number of electrons that one of its atoms has gained or lost in order to form a chemical bond with another atom. Like all alkaline earth metals, the predominant oxidation state of beryllium is +2.

Physical Properties of Beryllium

Beryllium is a lightweight, steel-gray metal that is very strong but also quite brittle. It has a high heat capacity, low density, exceptional stiffness, excellent electrical and thermal conductivity, and nonmagnetic properties. Listed below are some of the more notable properties of the element beryllium.

  • Symbol: Be
  • Melting point: 1287 ℃ (2349 ℉)
  • Boiling point: 2469 ℃ (4476 ℉)
  • Density: 1.85 g/cm3
  • Atomic weight: 9.012 u
  • Atomic number: 4
  • Electronegativity (Pauling scale): 1.57
  • Classification: Alkaline earth metal
  • Natural abundance in the Earth’s crust: 2.8 ppm (0.00028%)
  • Electron shell configuration: 1s22s2, or [He] 2s2
  • Isotopes: The element beryllium has 12 isotopes (5Be, 6Be, 7Be, 8Be, 9Be, 10Be, 11Be, 12Be, 13Be, 14Be, 15Be, and 16Be). Its only stable isotope is 9Be, while the rest are radioactive.
  • Found naturally in the following minerals: beryl, bertrandite, chrysoberyl, phenakite, gadolinite, herderite, and more.
  • Toxicity: Beryllium and its compounds are very toxic. They are classified as Group 1 carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Where Can I Buy Beryllium?

If you are looking for a sample of the element beryllium, you can purchase one from Luciteria Science. It costs $7.50 for 1 gram of 99.95% pure beryllium contained in a labeled bottle. In addition, you can buy 10 grams of beryllium for $29.00, 100 grams of beryllium for $275.00, or 1 kilogram of beryllium for $2,650.00. These prices do not include shipping and handling fees.

Samples of the Element Beryllium
Samples of beryllium metal available for purchase from Luciteria Science.

Peyton Powell