Beryllium Experiences A Renaissance
Domestic mine article by Harold Hough
Beryllium, once the darling of the Cold War and the aerospace industry is experiencing a renaissance. Beryllium ceramics make solar cells 40% more efficient. Beryllium alloys are used in thin film solar energy connectors. This light weight metal is also the base for space telescope mirrors. And, thanks to beryllium copper alloy, the average commercial aircraft is about 3,000 pounds lighter – which saves about 3.3 million tons of jet fuel a year.
Yet, for all of its advantages, beryllium is unknown to most people. And, the largest deposit of the metal is just as unknown as the metal it produces. The Materion operation, which is located in the Topaz-Spor Mountains, Utah, produces 200 metric tons of the 280 metric tons of beryllium produced worldwide each year.
Beryllium’s reputation has changed dramatically in the last century. 100 years ago, beryllium was a laboratory curiosity and its main ore, beryl was best known for its crystalline form, called emerald. But that soon changed. In the 1930s, the bombardment of beryllium by alpha radiation led to the discovery of the third subatomic particle, the neutron. A few years later, the Germans used beryllium to split the uranium atom for the first time. Beryllium was used to produce the neutrons for the first nuclear rector and atomic bomb. When Alan Shepard flew in space the first time, beryllium was used to form the heat shield. And, when Neil Armstrong went to the moon, it was on rocket nozzles made of pure beryllium.
Today, beryllium has many more uses. It’s used in gyroscopes, computer equipment, and instruments that need light weight and hardness. It’s also used in semiconductors.
Given its uses in aerospace, nuclear power, and electronics, it’s no wonder beryllium is considered a strategic material. Unfortunately, at the height of the Cold War, most of our beryllium came from outside the United States. In fact, much of the beryl ore used to extract beryllium came from gemstone mines.
That changed in the 1950s when geologists discovered that the Topaz-Spor Mountains, had a major deposit of a mineral called bertrandite, a low grade ore that contained about one percent beryllium. Unfortunately, this new mineral deposit required a new process for extracting the beryllium because traditional methods were designed for beryl, which contains ten times as much beryllium.
The new method crushed and then pulverized the ore in a ball mill. After begin reduced to a powder, it is injected with sulfuric acid and steam. After the sludge is allowed to settle out in floatation tanks, the liquor contains dissolved beryllium sulfate. Several chemical processes are then required to purify the solution and convert it into beryllium hydroxide. In the meantime, the left over filtrate is pumped to evaporation pools so the uranium can be separated. It is then shipped to the Materion Brush Beryllium & Composites facility in Elmore, Ohio, to produce metallic beryllium, beryllium alloys and the beryllia ceramic feedstock
The open pit Utah mine and plant is owned by Materion. In addition to processing bertrandite, the facility also processes about 20 metric tones of imported beryl, which is a higher grade beryllium ore.
Despite the new applications, it is the beryllium copper alloy that remains at the core of beryllium uses. It has a greater tensile strength and hardness than any other copper alloy. The alloy is used in springs and other parts that must retain their shapes when they are subjected to repeated strain. It is also used in low-current contacts for batteries and electrical connectors. That means it’s found in cell phones and high definition TVs. It’s true that other copper alloys can be used in place of copper beryllium, but only with reduced performance.
And, while the Department of Defense is trying to rid itself of many of its stockpiles of strategic minerals, beryllium is considered the only critical metal by the United States Department of Defense (Office of the Under Secretary of Defense Acquisition). They noted, “high purity beryllium is essential for important defense systems and unique in the function it performs” and that full involvement and support is necessary to sustain and shape the strategic direction of the market such that there must not be a significant and unacceptable risk of supply disruption.”… “High purity beryllium possesses unique properties that make it indispensable in many of today’s critical U.S. defense systems, including sensors, missiles and satellites, avionics, and nuclear weapons.”