What is Beryllium?
Beryllium is a silvery-white metal that is the fourth element on the periodic table. Beryllium is often used in alloys with copper and nickel to make things like springs, electrical contacts, and electrodes. It’s often used in alloy form because of how soft the metal is naturally.
Beryllium’s Place in the Periodic Table
Beryllium is named after the Greek name for beryl, ‘beryllo’. Beryl is a mineral that’s composed of beryllium aluminum cyclosilicate. Well known varieties of beryl include emerald and aquamarine. Beryllium is a group 2 element that is also known as an alkaline earth metal. All of the elements in this group are shiny, silvery-white metals that are somewhat reactive under standard conditions.
- Atomic number: 4
- Atomic Radius: 112pm
- Atomic mass: 9.012
- Symbol: Be
- Group: 2
- Period: 2
- Electron Configuration: [He]2s2
- Number of Protons: 4
- Number of Electrons: 4
- Number of Neutrons: 5
- Number of Isotopes: 1
Properties of Beryllium
Beryllium is a softer metal that has a silvery-white color. When found in its mineral form, beryl, it often looks like a mostly colorless crystal. Beryllium is relatively impervious to corrosion and is self-protective against things like atmospheric oxidation. It is a relatively good conductor of heat and electricity, like most metals, and is categorized as an alkaline earth metal. Alkaline earth metals all have similar electron structures and their subatomic similarity leads to them all having similar properties. For example, this category of metals is often stable in the environment and includes other elements like magnesium and strontium. They also are all good conductors of electricity and they never have a higher oxidation state than +2 because their outer electron shell only has room for two electrons.
When in a powdered form, beryllium can be extremely toxic to humans. Long-term exposure to beryllium, say through mining jobs and activities, can lead to chronic beryllium disease or berylliosis in your lungs. This typically starts with coughing and shortness of breath and can even lead to fibrosis.
Beryllium has relatively low density for an element of the periodic table, but not necessarily when compared to everyday objects. For example, human bones have roughly the same density as beryllium, but a standard baseball is even less dense than that at 1.5g/cm3. Beryllium also has the highest melting point out of all the alkaline earth metals. The melting point of beryllium is roughly 6 times greater than the melting point of water, commonly referred to as freezing point.
- Melting Point: 1560 K (1287°C)
- Boiling Point: 2741 K (2468°C)
- Density: 1.85g/cm3
- Phase at Room Temperature: solid
Beryllium in its solid metal form will dissolve readily in aqueous basic solutions like NaOH, but it won’t dissolve in acidic solutions. Interestingly enough, when beryllium is in its powdered form it does dissolve in acidic solutions like HCl. This is due to a thin layer of oxide that forms on the surface of beryllium as a metal, that is not there to protect the element when it’s in a powdered form. The metal is more reactive to basic solutions that have –OH because of its common oxidation state of +2. In the context of chemistry homework problems, this means you can generally expect beryllium compounds to react in some way when added to a basic solution. The oxidation state of +2 also means that beryllium can form 2 covalent bonds when it’s in compound.
- Oxidation states: +2
- Specific Heat: 1820 J/(kg K)
- Electronegativity: 1.57
- Heat of Fusion: 7.95 kJ/mol
- Heat of Vaporization: 297 kJ/mol
Beryllium only has one naturally occurring isotope, beryllium-9. However, there are six different radioactive isotopes that have been created in a lab, but they serve no commercial purpose. These radioactive isotopes are made by bombarding beryllium atoms with small participles and having some of the particles stick.
Alloys and Allotropes
Beryllium is most commonly used in an alloy form, so the alloys are where most of the commercial value of beryllium comes from. Beryllium alloys are popular commercially because they tend to be tougher, stiffer, and lighter than a lot of similar alloys and metals. Two common beryllium alloys are with aluminum and copper. The beryllium and aluminum alloy is called Beralcast and is 3 times as stiff and 25% lighter than aluminum on its one. This makes is an excellent building material for things like helicopters. The alloy made with copper only contains 2% beryllium. The addition of beryllium still allows the metal to conduct heat and electricity, but also makes the metal stronger, harder, and more resistant to corrosion.
Interesting Facts about Beryllium
- Beryllium, in the form of emeralds and other gem stones, were mined by the ancient Romans and Egyptians over 2000 years ago
- Beryllium played a role in the discovery of neutrons. James Chadwick discovered this subatomic particle while bombarding beryllium with alpha particles
- Beryllium was the primary material in the mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope which is set to be launched in March of 2021
- Beryllium is highly transparent to X-rays
- One of the scientists who worked to discover beryllium, Vaunquelin, also discovered the element chromium
- The US Department of Defense classified beryllium as a strategic and critical material because many beryllium containing compounds are used to make military equipment essential for national security
- The European Union categorizes beryllium as one of the 20 critical raw materials
- Beryllium can be found in about 30 different minerals, with beryl being the most common
- It’s never smart to lick your chemistry experiments, but beryllium is known to have a sweet taste
- Beryllium has an unusually high melting point for a metal
Occurrence and Abundance of Beryllium
Beryllium is never found in nature simply by itself, rather it is always found in various compounds. However, beryllium is relatively abundant on Earth with an estimated 2 to 10 parts per million found in the Earth’s crust. This roughly translates to beryllium making up 0.00019% of the Earth’s crust. This number may seem small but there is no shortage of supply of beryllium for the uses that we’ve found. It’s abundance in the universe as a whole and in human bodies for example, is significantly lower than its occurrence in the Earth’s crust. The United States is one of the largest suppliers of beryllium (usually mined as beryl) with the most prominent mine in Delta, Utah. There are also mines in China, Russia, and Brazil.
Uses of Beryllium
Most Notable Uses in General
Finally, beryllium is indirectly a part of the jewelry industry. Gem stones like emeralds and aquamarine contain Be atoms in their chemical compound. Both of these gem stones come from the mineral beryl which has a chemical structure of Be3Al2(SiO3)6. The green color of emeralds is created by the addition of trace amounts of chromium. Aquamarine, however, gets its color from heat treatment of beryl. Certain slightly impure beryl takes on a very light green color which can then be heated to 750°F to turn the mineral into aquamarine.
Most Notable Uses in Science
Beryllium alloys are used for a lot of different metal products such as machine parts and circuitry, satellite materials, even in space crafts. Some other common appliances that make use of beryllium compounds are microwave ovens, automobiles, radar, and construction equipment. Also, due to its toxic health effects, beryllium is studied in research labs to find ways to better predict who will develop health complications from exposure to the powdered form.
Discovery of Beryllium
Beryllium, in the form of beryl and various gemstones, has been around since ancient times. However, in 1797 a French mineralogist named René-Just Haüy started doing experiments on beryl to learn more about its true nature. He worked with a colleague named Louis Nicolas Vauquelin to perform chemical analysis of beryl and they discovered a new material that was very similar to aluminum. While almost mistaken for aluminum, they had in fact discovered a new element, which they named glucinium. The names glucinium and beryllium were both used for almost 160 years before scientists stuck with the name beryllium, after the original mineral beryl.
Beryllium in the Future
There is little research being done on beryllium outside of the work on chronic beryllium disease. The disease could have a genetic pre-disposition factor that scientists are looking into, but the disease is not a common focus for the medical community because of its rarity. However, there have been 6 radioactive isotopes created in a lab, and exploration into alloys for increased efficiency of things like heat and energy conductivity are always ongoing.