It’s tempting to call beryllium the “Clark Kent” of the periodic table’s group 2 elements:
Beryllium is usually found in bertrandite or beryl crystals and minerals.
The square-jawed, mild-mannered crystals get the job done but would never be mistaken for one of their glamorous associates, say, emeralds or aquamarines.
As a metal, beryllium is dull gray and usually covered with an oxide (“rust,” which is a lighter shade of gray).
But when the need for its unique properties arises, watch out!
And almost all of this “super” material comes from one source–Materion, the company that produced that last video.
Nothing nefarious or supervillainous is going on; there just happens to be a single huge deposit of beryllium in the world, in Utah, and Materion owns it. Unfortunately, it’s called Spor Mountain, not the Fortress of Solitude.
But it does have an awesome origin story (the wave of supervolcanic eruptions at the end of this video segment):
The Spor Mountain tuff was erupted near the end of that huge ignimbrite flareup in the West, about 21 million years ago. Its beryllium wasn’t very soluble at that point, as the element was mostly bound up in volcanic glass shards.
But as time passed, groundwater circulated and other eruptions dropped a lot of carbonate-containing rocks into the tuff. The beryllium leached out, chemistry happened, and a very high-beryllium-content mineral called bertrandite accumulated in old ring fractures of one of the extinct supervolcanoes (Thomas Caldera) in huge amounts.
Bertrandite otherwise is fairly widespread, but such large deposits of it have never been found elsewhere on the planet.
When the Age of Science dawned, it seemed to pass beryllium by for the most part. Beryllium oxide was discovered in the late 18th century; about thirty years later, someone isolated the metal. That was pretty much it for beryllium until World War II.
Then people in the aerospace, defense, and nuclear industries became fascinated by this element. It’s six times stiffer than steel but very lightweight. It’s resistant to corrosion, nonmagnetic, a good alloy, an excellent conductor of both heat and electricity, and useful in controlling fission reactions.
This metal is also transparent to x-rays–wait. Let’s just pause for a moment and let the Superman: The Movie theme play in our heads.
There. Now, in the 21st century–in 2017, according to the USGS–21% of US beryllium went into consumer electronics, 19% was used in industry (connectors, springs, switches, and a variety of electrical components), 14% into automatic electronics; 11% went to defense, 9% to telecommunications infrastructure, 6% to energy applications (it makes great wind turbine blades), and 2% to medicine (MRI machines, for instance); file the rest under “miscellaneous.”
Beryllium is very useful. And while the US has the biggest deposits of bertrandite in the world, other countries have some, too. And the very high-purity beryl mineral needed for some specialized beryllium applications must be imported, mainly from Brazil, China, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Portugal.
This, plus the lack of equally high-performing substitutes for this “Supermineral” are why beryllium is on the 2018 strategic mineral list.
Featured image: Aatze78 via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Folte, N. K.; Jaskula, B. W.; Piatak, N. M.; and Schulte, R. F. 2017. Chapter E: Beryllium, in Critical mineral resources of the United States—Economic and environmental geology and prospects for future supply: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1802, Schulz, K. J.; DeYoung, Jr., J. H.; Seal, II, R. R.; and Bradley, D. C., eds. https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/pp1802
Fortier, S. M.; Nassar, N. T.; Lederer, G. W.; Brainard, J.; and others. 2018. Draft critical mineral list–summary of methodology and background information–U. S. Geological Survey technical input document in response to Secretarial Order No. 3359. Open-File Report 2018-1021. (PDF)
Jaskula, B. J. 2018. Beryllium. US Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Summaries. (PDF)
Lindsey, D. A. (1982). Tertiary volcanic rocks and uranium in the Thomas Range and northern Drum Mountains, Juab County, Utah (No. 1221). https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/pp1221
USGS Mineral Resources Program. 2012. Beryllium–Important for National Defense. Fact Sheet 2012-3056. (PDF)