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January 30, 2012

Beryllium’s glamorous lifestyle hides a dark character. Though sweet on the outside it is very nasty underneath.

On Earth, and in the rest of the universe, beryllium (Be) is rare. With four electrons beryllium is only two electrons away from a happy stable arrangement like helium. It is fairly easy for beryllium to lose these two electrons to form Be2+ and form bonds with other atoms to make compounds. This means all the beryllium found naturally on earth is tied up in compounds with other elements. The most common place to find beryllium, for those rich enough, is in emeralds. It is also found in a range of other gemstones with the names varying with the colour. The colours have nothing to do with beryllium but come from trace impurities such as chromium or manganese in the crystals.

The element beryllium is a metal with some unusual properties. Beryllium is light, strong and has a high melting point which makes it an ideal choice for the space industry. Rocket nozzles made with beryllium alloys don’t deform under the high temperature conditions they experience.

A more unusual use of the metal is as windows for X-ray detectors and as the beam pipe for the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC has a huge doughnut shaped pipe through which scientists accelerate protons towards each other (I like to think of the protons as two piñatas smashed together to find out what’s inside). Because beryllium metal is strong and inflexible high vacuums can be created inside the pipe, the particle debris from the proton collisions are very small, as is the nucleus of beryllium, meaning the particles travel through the beryllium pipe to the detectors relatively undisturbed.

Space vehicles, big budget physics and jewellery – so far so glitzy. What about the dark side?

Beryllium and its compounds are toxic. Be2+ is very similar in size and character to magnesium, in the form of Mg2+, which carries out a huge number of vital functions in the human body. Be2+ will be absorbed by the body mistaking it for Mg2+ but it won’t work as well leading to a breakdown in vital processes at a cellular level. Beryllium’s rarity means we will not be exposed to dangerous levels in our everyday life but metal workers in the space industry were once at greater risk of exposure – beryllium is particularly dangerous when its dust is inhaled. Huge improvements in working practices in the space industry have now reduced the risks to a minimum.

The cruel twist to poisoning cases is that many compounds of beryllium taste like sugar. When the element was first discovered it was suggested its name should be glucinum or glucinium after the Greek word for sweet.

There are no recorded cases of deliberate beryllium poisoning but this isn’t surprising. Although the sweet taste would mean beryllium would be easy to disguise in food it would be a poor choice for wannabe poisoners. Beryllium’s rarity is an insurance against murder but its high melting point means it is also very difficult to work with. The first ever ingot of beryllium was cast in 1898, 70 years after the initial discovery of the element.

Next week, its not boring, its boron.


Images by @SciCommStudios

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