The fourth element on the periodic table, beryllium is certainly less well known than some of its single-digit neighbours like oxygen and helium. But this obscure element has many high tech fans and is poised to become an essential material of the future. Need an example?… the James Webb Space Telescope – the successor to Hubble – will carry 18 mirrors made of beryllium when it heads to space in a launch scheduled for 2013.
Beryllium is mostly used as an alloy when combined with elements like copper, nickel and aluminum, it forms materials that are lighter, tougher and more corrosion resistant than similar alloys. Beryllium alloys are used to make jets, helicopters, missiles, communications satellites… some rocket nozzles have been made of pure beryllium metal.
Nasa often uses beryllium because it is a light metal and non-magnetic. Other qualities include very low density (1.85 times that of water), high melting point (1287 °C), high temperature stability, low coefficient of thermal expansion and resistance to corrosion. These unusual chemical and physical properties make beryllium an ideal material for many scientific and medical instruments. For example, beryllium is used in filters and windows for radiation and particle physics experiments because of its relatively high transparency to X-rays.
Other advanced technology applications include fibre optics, lasers, non-sparking explosive handling tools and undersea oil wellheads. You’ll find it in more commonplace things as well… skidoos, ATVs, microwave ovens, automobile suspensions, electric motors, generators, alternators –– even golf clubs. Beryllium is also used to make fluorescent lamps and electronic components in computers, stereos, and video players.
Beryllium is clearly a very versatile element. Its unmatched capabilities for high tech use, and an impressive legacy in aerospace, defence, information technology, medical, nuclear, scientific and other applications, should make for an even brighter future.