Great things rarely come in neat packages, and while Beryllium has one of the widest range of uses on the periodic table, it is not without its drawbacks. It can be dazzlingly beautiful and helps make all sorts of products, but Beryllium may just cause some illness in the process if workers aren’t mindful.
Beryllium was originally known as Glucinium (from the Greek “glykys” meaning sweet) because of its characteristic sweet taste. However, scientists quickly discovered that Beryllium was actually toxic, and therefore naming it after its taste could invite unsafe ingestion.
In fact, Beryllium’s isolated metallic form is so highly toxic that it is classified as a carcinogen. For this reason, there are very specific work codes which must be followed while working with Beryllium. Despite this high level of toxicity, Beryllium is still classified as a critical material for both the United States and Europe.
Beryllium has all sorts of practical applications, so those who work with the element will have to maintain high safety standards, as it’s unlikely that it’ll stop being used any time soon. Those who help with the isolation process at industrial plants are, perhaps, the most at risk, as they can develop lung cancer after prolonged exposure without the proper precautions.
Beautiful but Deadly
Beryllium was first discovered in its oxide form in the late 1790s by Louis Nicholas Vauquelin; he recognized it in both Beryl and Emeralds (one of the precious forms of the material). The metallic Beryllium was first isolated about 30 years later, and its usefulness grew from there.
Beryllium is found in about 30 different minerals, but most often in Beryl; it isn’t especially abundant. The U.S. is by far the largest producer of Beryllium. In fact, one mine in Utah accounts for more than 80% of the Beryllium excavated in the world.
This element is one of the lightest of all metals, and also has one of the highest melting points. It has a high degree of elasticity and strong thermal conductivity; it’s also quite permeable to X-Rays and will produce neurons when subjected to alpha particles. All of this means that it’s a versatile material to combine with others.
An Important Component
Beryllium is used in a number of different alloys to perform various functions. Due to its thermal conductivity and high melting point, it can be combined with copper or nickel to create welding tools and electrical contacts. These alloys are also commonly used for springs and gears.
These combinations are relatively light, and so they have also been used to create structural and mechanical components on spacecraft. Perhaps the most technically involved use of Beryllium is in nuclear reactors as a moderator.
Beryllium and Bling
Beryl, the main mineral in which you can find Beryllium, comes in a few precious forms that are quite well known. Emerald, aquamarine, and morganite are all precious forms of Beryl, and therefore may contain (likely do contain) some amount of Beryllium.
Don’t worry—sporting one of these gems doesn’t mean that you will endure Beryllium’s toxic effects. The element occurs in very low abundance, and is not really generally dangerous when it hasn’t been isolated, so feel free to flash your precious stones without worry of impending illness.
Beryllium can be as lovely as it is useful, but its many functions are met in equal measure by its potential for harm. So long as humans respect the dangers of Beryllium, they can keep innovating new functions of it.