Beryllium element | Properties, Abundance, Discovery, Uses and Isotopes

Characteristics of beryllium

Beryllium, of symbol Be, is the fourth lightest chemical element. It has atomic number 4, that to say, it has 4 protons at its nucleus (apart from neutrons), and 4 electrons around it. Beryllium is a silvery-grey metal, and at room temperature is a hard and brittle material. It belongs to Group 2 (IIA) of the periodic table, which converts it into one of the six alkaline earth metals. Beryllium is an element with a perfect thermal conductivity, it is very light, and can support an elevated pressure.

Beryllium has one of the greatest melting points (1287 ºC) and boiling points (2469 ºC) of all of the lightest metals. It is an element with a third more elasticity than steel, and it is a non-magnetic material. An elevated exposure to beryllium can cause irritation in the eyes and in the throat, which can provoke fever. An elevated and continued exposure to beryllium dust can lead to a situation where the life of the person is threatened, known as berylliosis.

Abundance on the Earth

Beryllium is a very rare element in the Earth’s crust, and even more in the ocean. In the Earth’s crust it is present in approximately 6 parts per million (ppm), and in very low percentages in the terrestrial atmosphere. It is even more scarce in marine water, with a presence of only 0.6 parts per trillion. Beryllium is an element that is present in about a hundred minerals. The most common known compounds of beryllium include beryl, bertrandite and chrysoberyl. Other compounds of beryllium are of gem quality, as green colour beryl, red beryl, aquamarine and emerald.

Discovery and history

Beryllium was discovered in 1797 by the chemist and pharmacist Nicholas-Louis Vauquelin in beryl and emerald, but it wasn’t isolated until 1828 by the French chemist Antoine-Alexandre-Brutus Bussy, and, independently, by the German chemist Friedich Wöhler.

The name of beryllium comes from the Greek word beryllos (beryl), a gem in which is found the element. However, when this element was discovered, as beryllium salts have a sweet taste, it was named glucinum, from the Greek word glykys, which means sweet. However, in 1949 the IUPAC (a non-governmental institution, responsible for the chemical nomenclature and terminology, and that carries many scientific investigations) decided to change its name to beryllium, the way we name it today.

Uses of beryllium

  • One of the uses beryllium is given the most is to create alloys of other materials, for example, copper and nickel, to create diverse tools with specific properties, or to increase its thermal and electric conductivity.
  • Thanks to its transparency to X-rays, beryllium is used for the windows for the X-ray tubes, and as a moderator in nuclear reactors.
  • Beryllium is also used to manufacture different metals with high tensile strength.
  • Another use of beryllium is the one to create tools of great precision, as, for example, in gyroscopes or in computer parts.

Its isotopes

Beryllium has 10 known isotopes, but only three of them are found naturally: beryllium-7 (7Be), beryllium-9 (9Be) and beryllium-10 (10Be). The most common and stable isotope of this element is 9Be. The other two are very rare and are radioactive, even if they take a long time to disintegrate (10Be takes some millions of years). For this reason, these two isotopes are to determine the ages of geological processes that took place on Earth millions of years ago.

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