Beryllium is a chemical element with the symbol Be and atomic number 4 in the periodic table of elements. It occurs in a quantity from 2 to 6 parts per million (ppm) in the Earth’s crust, i.e. 2.8 milligrams per kilogram of the elemental form of beryllium.
This lightest member of the alkaline earth metals family of periodic table elements is a toxic divalent element that can be found in minerals as a part of compounds with other chemical elements.
Chemical and Physical Properties of Beryllium
|Atomic weight (mass)||9.01218 g.mol-1|
|Color||Steel-gray with whitish strikes|
|Physical state||A solid, strong, lightweight metal; brittle at room temperature|
|Melting point||1287 °C|
|Boiling point||2970 °C|
|Van der Waals radius||153 pm|
|Ionic radius||0.45 (+2) Å|
|Isotopes||12 (1 naturally occurring isotope – 9Be)|
|Electronic shell||1s2 2s2 or [ He ] 2s2|
|The energy of the first ionization||899.2 kJ.mol-1|
|The energy of the second ionization||1757 kJ.mol-1|
|Standard potential||– 1.70 V|
|Discovery date||In 1798 by Abbé René-Just Hauy|
Beryllium has 4 protons in its nucleus, low density, and an atomic mass of 9.01218 g.mol -1. These properties make beryllium susceptible to ionizing radiation and partially transparent to x-rays.
Beryllium is a light, non-magnetic metal with high flexural rigidity, strong optical and nuclear properties, high heat capacity, and thermal stability over a wide temperature range. The hardness of beryllium metal measures 80-100 by Rockwell.
This chemical substance reaches its boiling point at 2970 °C, while the melting point is achieved at 1287 °C. Beryllium also has a great thermal conductivity (220 W·m−1·K−1). With a +2 oxidation state, beryllium forms oxides at extremely high temperatures and is insoluble in nitric acid.
How Was Beryllium Discovered?
Since ancient times, beryllium silicates, beryl and emerald, were known to the old civilizations that have exploited them in the form of beryl and emerald crystals. The legends say that emperor Nero used a large emerald crystal in order to see better. This means that the optical properties and clearness of beryllium and its compounds were discovered way before the first glasses were made.
In 1798, the French chemist Nicolas-Louis Vauquelin, (May 16, 1763 – November 14, 1829) is the first scientist who discovered beryllium in a beryl ore as well as its green form, the precious emerald.
Since it shares many chemical and physical properties with aluminum (Al), it was more difficult for the chemists to distinguish beryllium as a separate chemical element from the compounds.
The German chemist Friedrich Wöhler (31 July 1800 – 23 September 1882) and his French colleague, Antoine Bussy, are the first scientists who in two independent experiments managed to isolate pure beryllium from beryllium chloride (BeCl2) in 1828.
Beryllium’s Role in the Discovery of the Neutron
Beryllium plays an important role in the advancement of atomic theory. Namely, in 1935, the English physicist Sir James Chadwick (October 20, 1891 – July 24, 1974) won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the neutron.
By following the experiments of Walther Bothe and Herbert Becker who bombarded beryllium molecules with alpha-particles and observed high-energy gamma rays as a result, Sir Chadwick tried to prove his doubt in that result, and he was right. The unfamiliar radiation emitted from beryllium bombarded by alpha rays in a vacuum chamber led him to the historical discovery of neutrons.
How Did Beryllium Get Its Name?
Due to the sweetness of the beryllium salts, this chemical element used to be labeled as glucinum or glucinium, a term derived from the Greek word ‘glykys’ denoting ‘sweet’. This name was kept until 1949, when IUPAC chose the present name beryllium, given after the Greek term for the mineral beryl – ‘beryllos’.
Where Can You Find Beryllium?
Beryllium comprises 0.1 parts per billion of the Sun. It’s a chemical substance that is rarely found in nature since it mainly occurs as a result of a nuclear reaction, i.e. a fragmentation of large atomic nuclei by interaction with cosmic rays.
Today, beryllium can be obtained from beryllium aluminium cyclosilicate, also labeled as beryl (Be3Al2Si6O18), as well as from bertrandite ore (4BeO·2SiO2·H2O). The electrolysis of molten BeCl2 and NaCl also produces pure beryllium. The reaction between beryllium fluoride and magnesium also yields the most of the beryllium quantities used for commercial purposes.
There are plenty of different beryllium minerals found in nature:
The crystals of bertrandite silicate can sometimes reach great measures. Such is the example of the crystals found near Maine in the USA, where a cluster of 5-meter-high bertrandite crystals weighing over 20 tonnes was discovered.
Colombia (South America), Austria, and Pakistan are the locations where the ancient Romans were supplying beryllium from in the old days. Currently, the United States, Mozambique, and China count among the greatest producers of beryllium in the world.
Beryllium in Everyday Life
Since this metal is difficult to manufacture by the common uniaxial die pressing technique, beryllium is fabricated by the hot isostatic pressing process which lowers the cost of its production and makes this substance more available for application in everyday life.
Due to its transparency to x-rays and dimensional stability, beryllium has many optical, acoustic, nuclear, and mechanical uses. This light, but resilient metal, is applied in the realms of medicine (dental alloys and x-ray medical investigations), security, transport, energy, communications, and scientific discovery.
Nuclear, Space, and Optical Application of Beryllium
Due to its x-ray transparency and low atomic number, beryllium’s widest application is in the radiation windows for x-ray tubes. When bombarded by radium or polonium alpha-particles, beryllium produces approximately 30 neutrons/million alpha particles.
The low thermal neutron absorption cross-section makes beryllium applicable in the production of neutrons used as a source of power in nuclear reactors.
Beryllium oxide (BeO) is mostly applied in the nuclear industry. Its thermostability, high melting point, and low density make it a material of choice for the construction of protective shingles for space exploration capsules, missiles, radiation detectors, weather forecasting satellites, spacecrafts, etc. Beryllium alloys are also used in communication satellites, aircrafts, and spacecrafts.
Some optical glasses and mirrors are made of compressed beryllium powder. Due to the optical properties of beryllium, these optical surfaces achieve high reflectivity of UV rays.
Electronic, Acoustic, and Magnetic Application of Beryllium
Used as an alloying agent in beryllium copper, beryllium is widely used in the production of electronic contacts, transducers, springs, computer parts, gyroscopes, etc. Since beryllium elongates the resonance of sound, it’s often used to control the acoustic waves – a phenomenon that has not been displayed by any other chemical substance so far.
The beryllium copper alloy (CuBe) is a non-magnetic and non-sparking, extremely hard substance suitable for production of music instruments (especially percussion instruments such as triangles and tambourines), wrenches, wires, hammers, bullets, and precision measurement devices.
How Dangerous Is Beryllium?
Even though the metal form of this substance is non-toxic, beryllium can exhibit highly negative health effects upon inhaling beryllium dust or fumes or when coming into contact with the skin, which can lead to metal poisoning called berylliosis (beryllium-induced lung disease).
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), beryllium can lead to lung cancer due to high exposure to the substance only in environments where beryllium is the main working material.
(NIOSH. NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards. Department of Health & Human Services, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health. DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2010-168 (2010). Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg)
Acute Beryllium Disease
Acute Berylliosis or acute beryllium disease is a rare form of a beryllium-induced lung disease. This owes to the fact that today’s strict regulations on workplace safety control the release of beryllium in high levels into the working environment which could present a health hazard for the workers.
Chronic Beryllium Disease
Chronic beryllium disease (CBD) occurs after a longer period of exposure to high levels of beryllium dust or fumes. Beryllium sensitization can result in a reaction of the body similar to an allergy. However, chronic beryllium disease sometimes may take 30-40 years to develop from the initially occurring berylliosis.
What Are the Symptoms of Beryllium Disease?
The person affected by beryllium induced lung disease may experience the following symptoms:
- Allergic reactions;
- Redness and itching upon contact with the toxic substance;
- Swelling of the lungs;
- Breathing difficulty;
- Chest pain;
- Thickening of the deep lung tissues,
- Formation of inflammatory granulomas;
- Enlarged liver;
- Loss of appetite that consecutively leads to weight loss.
In addition, traces of beryllium can be found in the urine of the affected individual even 10 years after the exposure to its toxicity. (Browning, E. Toxicity of Industrial Metals. 2nd ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969., p. 70).
Since the symptoms of this disease do not occur immediately after the exposure to high levels of beryllium, the affected individuals that work in an environment with an increased risk for exposure to the toxicity of this alkaline-earth metal must look after their health and conduct regular checkups.
Environmental Effects of Beryllium
Since beryllium is not found in its elemental form freely in nature, it can be spread in the air, soil, and waters only by human activities. The metal, coal, and oil industries are surroundings where it is most likely for beryllium to be found in the human environment. Even though both beryllium metal and its compounds have a sweet taste, when inhaled or ingested, they can produce some severe toxic effects on human health. Moreover, beryllium is considered to be one of the most toxic chemical elements of the periodic table.
Isotopes of Beryllium
The beryllium isotopes are formed by spallation of the stars in the Universe. The radioisotopes of beryllium have a short half-life. Due to the rarity of this chemical element, there is only one naturally occurring non-radioactive isotope of the primordial beryllium – 9Be (natural abundance: 100%). The relative atomic mass of beryllium-9 is 9.012183 g/mol.
The combination of an alpha particle with beryllium-9 results in carbon-13 isotope goes as follows:
4Be-9 + 2He-4 —–> 6C-13
6C-13 —–> 0n-1 + 6C-14
Beryllium-10 is a radioisotope with a half-life of more than 1.5 million years. Deposits of this isotope that have been accumulated over several centuries have been discovered in the ice cores of Greenland. The increase in quantity of the beryllium-10 isotope in the sediments between the ice age and the glacial period is proof that nowadays the magnetic field of the Earth is stronger.
The table below displays the isotopes of beryllium, their decay mode, half-life, and quantity of natural abundance.
|Z||N||Isotopic mass (Da)
[n 2][n 3]
|Natural abundance (mole fraction)|
|Excitation energy||Normal proportion||Range of variation|
|14390.3(17) keV||1.25(10)×10−18 s||3/2−|
|4||7||11.02166108(26)||13.76(7) s||β− (97.1%)||11
|β−, α (2.9%)||7
|21158(20) keV||9.3(10)×10−22 s||IT||11
|4||8||12.0269221(2)||21.50(4) ms||β− (99.5%)||12
|β−, n (0.5%)||11
|2251(1) keV||229(8) ns||IT||12
|4||10||14.04289(14)||4.35(17) ms||β−, n (98%)||13
|β−, 2n (0.8%)||12
List of Beryllium Compounds
The following is a list of compounds containing beryllium:
- Basic beryllium acetate;
- Beryllium azide;
- Beryllium borohydride;
- Beryllium bromide;
- Beryllium carbide;
- Beryllium carbonate;
- Beryllium chloride;
- Beryllium fluoride;
- Beryllium hydride;
- Beryllium hydroxide;
- Beryllium iodide;
- Beryllium monohydride;
- Beryllium nitrate;
- Beryllium nitride;
- Beryllium oxide;
- Beryllium sulfate;
- Beryllium sulfide;
- Beryllium sulfite;
- Beryllium telluride;
- Lithium beryllide;
Beryl (beryllium aluminum silicate) is one of the most popular minerals. While pure beryl appears to be colorless, it can occur in a variety of other colors, crystals, and gemstones. The color variety depends on the pureness of the mineral. The blue and green forms of this mineral are widely known as emerald and aquamarine gemstones. Their crystals are tabular, symmetric, six-sided hexagons.
This is the most popular form of beryl. It can appear in shades of green, but only the deep green crystals are labeled as emeralds. The traces of chromium or vanadium give emeralds their distinct green color. The shade of the emeralds depends on the oxidation state. Together with ruby and sapphire, emerald is one of the top three most traded precious stones in the world.
This precious form of beryl can be located in sedimentary rocks, such as organic shale and carbonaceous limestone. Colombia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Brazil, and Ethiopia, are the world’s leading countries in production and trade of emeralds. In the United States, only North Carolina has an emerald mine. It was famously operated for some time by the American luxury jewelry manufacturer Tiffany and Company.
Well known for its beautifully radiant greenish-blue color, aquamarine is the blue translucent form of beryl. The rich blue-colored crystals are rarely found, hence they are the most expensive of the type. Even the name of this precious form of beryl resembles the color. It is derived from the Latin words “aqua” (water) and “marina” (sea), uniting in a reference to “the color of the sea”.
The aquamarines with qualities of a precious stone typically form deep in the cavities of Earth’s layers where the crystals have enough space to grow. This member of the beryl family of crystals can be found in granite pegmatites and mineralized metamorphic rocks.
The world’s leading aquamarine producing and trading country is Brazil. Kenya, Madagascar, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India, also participate in the world’s market as great producers and exporters of aquamarine.
The Elberts Aquamarine Mine in Linville, North Carolina, is the location of the largest aquamarine mine in the United States.
5 Interesting Facts And Explanations
- Beryllium (Be), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), barium (Ba), strontium (Sr), and radium (Ra) make up the group of alkaline earth metals in the periodic table of elements.
- Beryl is a compound of beryllium labeled as beryllium aluminum cyclosilicate – Be3Al2Si6O18. Its most known forms of occurrence are the gemstones aquamarine and emerald.
- In the 13th century, the first eyeglasses were made out of beryl in Italy. This beryllium compound was used for its optical properties and clearness. Later, the term ‘brillen’ was adopted in the German vocabulary denoting ‘glasses’. Logically, it was derived from the name of the chemical substance used in the making of the glasses – beryllium. Danish and Dutch vocabularies were also enriched with a word denoting glasses that refers to beryllium. Hence, glasses are called ‘briller’ in Danish, and ‘bril’ in Dutch.
- Beryllium metal is 50% more elastic than steel.
- The beryllium copper alloy (CuBe) is also known as spring copper, beryllium bronze, or copper beryllium.