A poisonous element that helped a physicist win a Nobel Prize

This el­e­ment is not very abun­dant in the uni­verse and only forms in su­per­no­va ex­plo­sions.

Beryl­li­um’s oc­cur­rence

The name “beryl­li­um” came from the name of the min­er­al beryl (beryl­li­um alu­minum cy­closil­i­cate, Be₃Al₂Si₆O₁₈). In its turn, beryl gets its name from the town of Belur in South­ern In­dia, near Madras. Since an­cient times, this re­gion was known for its emer­ald de­posits — var­i­ous types of beryl. Some­times large crys­tals of this min­er­al are found here, some over 20 feet (6 me­ters) in length. It is also found in the USA, Brazil, Rus­sia, In­dia and Mada­gas­car. The Ro­mans and an­cient Egyp­tians high­ly val­ued emer­alds and beryls, and the Ro­man philoso­pher and writ­er Pliny the El­der, who wrote in the 1st cen­tu­ry CE, be­lieved that they were both formed from the same min­er­al.

How beryl­li­um was dis­cov­ered

Ow­ing to the sweet taste of beryl­li­um com­pounds dis­solved in wa­ter, the el­e­ment was ini­tial­ly named “glu­cine” (from An­cient Greek γλυκύς, glukos – sweet). The el­e­ment was dis­cov­ered in 1798 by the French chemist Louis-Nico­las Vauquelin, who called it glu­cinum. The el­e­ment got re­ceived mod­ern name at the sug­ges­tion of the chemists Klaproth and Eke­berg. Ma­jor work on es­tab­lish­ing the com­po­si­tion of com­pounds of beryl­li­um and its min­er­als was car­ried out by the Rus­sian chemist Ivan Avdeev (1818—1865). He proved that beryl­li­um ox­ide had the com­po­si­tion BeO, and not Be₂O₃, as was be­lieved pre­vi­ous­ly. In free form, beryl­li­um was iso­lat­ed in 1828 by the French chemist Bussy, and the Ger­man chemist Wöh­ler, in­de­pen­dent­ly of him. Pure metal­lic beryl­li­um was ob­tained in 1898 by the French chemist Lebeau us­ing elec­trol­y­sis of molten salts.

Beryl­li­um’s tox­i­c­i­ty

There is no data about the bi­o­log­i­cal role of beryl­li­um, but it is tox­ic for hu­mans. Breath­ing in the fumes of beryl­li­um caus­es chron­ic dam­age to the lungs, known as beryl­lio­sis: cough­ing, dif­fi­cult and shal­low breath­ing, pains in the chest, weight loss, and pos­si­ble dam­age to the eyes and skin. Peo­ple work­ing with beryl­li­um al­loy in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry faced se­ri­ous risks when flu­o­res­cent lamps were coat­ed with phos­pho­rus, which con­tained beryl­li­um ox­ide. The man­u­fac­ture of these lamps was end­ed when a large num­ber of work­ers in the USA were found to have lung dis­ease.

Main prop­er­ties and ap­pli­ca­tion ar­eas of beryl­li­um

Beryl­li­um is a light, strong, brit­tle, sil­very-white met­al, re­sis­tant to cor­ro­sion, and which melts at a very high tem­per­a­ture. All of these prop­er­ties make beryl­li­um ide­al for use in space­craft and mis­siles. Ad­di­tion­al­ly, a beryl­li­um hy­dride is used as a com­po­nent of rock­et fu­els. Beryl­li­um ox­ide is the most ther­mal­ly con­duc­tive of all ox­ides, and its ther­mal con­duc­tiv­i­ty at room tem­per­a­ture is high­er than the ma­jor­i­ty of met­als and al­most all non-met­als (apart from di­a­mond and sil­i­con car­bide), so it can be used for the man­u­fac­ture of high­ly ther­mal­ly con­duc­tive high-tem­per­a­ture in­su­la­tors and fire-proof ma­te­ri­als.

An al­loy of cop­per con­tain­ing a small per­cent­age of beryl­li­um makes a non-spark­ing, high­ly durable al­loy, which is ide­al for the man­u­fac­ture of bar­rels for oil and flammable liq­uids, when one spark may cause a catas­tro­phe.

In laser tech­nol­o­gy, beryl­li­um alu­mi­nate is used for mak­ing sol­id-state emit­ters (rods, plates). Beryl­li­um is un­usu­al for its abil­i­ty to re­flect neu­trons, so it is used in the man­u­fac­ture of nu­cle­ar weapons. In­side the war­head, neu­trons bom­bard ura­ni­um to re­lease en­er­gy. As the neu­trons are re­flect­ed off the case con­tain­ing beryl­li­um, this leads to an ac­cel­er­a­tion of the nu­cle­ar re­ac­tion in­side the war­head.

Beryl­li­um’s role in sci­ence

Beryl­li­um played a key role in the de­vel­op­ment of atom­ic the­o­ry, when neu­trons were dis­cov­ered. In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, physi­cists mea­sur­ing atom­ic mass­es the­o­rized that nu­clei must not only con­tain pos­i­tive­ly charged pro­tons. The British physi­cist Sir James Chad­wick con­duct­ed a 10-year study of the atom, and in 1932 re­port­ed that if beryl­li­um was bom­bard­ed with al­pha par­ti­cles giv­en off ra­di­um, it would ra­di­ate un­known sub­atom­ic par­ti­cles. These par­ti­cles had ap­prox­i­mate­ly the same mass as pro­tons, but did not have an elec­tri­cal charge. Chad­wick dis­cov­ered the neu­tron, and in 1935 won the No­bel Prize for physics for his dis­cov­ery.