Beryllium facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts

Beryllium is in group 2 of the periodic table, so it is an alkaline earth metal. It is grayish (slightly gray) in color. It has an atomic number of 4 and is symbolized by the letters Be. It is toxic and should not be handled by anyone without proper training.

Beryllium, crystalline fragment

Beryllium has 4 electrons, 4 protons, and 5 neutrons.

Beryllium is most likely known for the chemical compounds it forms. Some of these are emeralds and aquamarines.

Beryllium has one of the highest melting points of the light metals. It is added to other metals to make stronger alloys.

At standard temperature and pressures beryllium resists oxidation when exposed to oxygen.

Beryllium combines with aluminium, silicon and oxygen to make a mineral called beryl.

Emerald and aquamarine are two varieties of beryl which are used as gemstones in jewelry.


Radiation windows

Beryllium target
Beryllium target which "converts" a proton beam into a neutron beam
Be foil square
A square beryllium foil mounted in a steel case to be used as a window between a vacuum chamber and an X-ray microscope. Beryllium is highly transparent to X-rays owing to its low atomic number.

Because of its low atomic number and very low absorption for X-rays, the oldest and still one of the most important applications of beryllium is in radiation windows for X-ray tubes. Extreme demands are placed on purity and cleanliness of beryllium to avoid artifacts in the X-ray images. Thin beryllium foils are used as radiation windows for X-ray detectors, and the extremely low absorption minimizes the heating effects caused by high intensity, low energy X-rays typical of synchrotron radiation. Vacuum-tight windows and beam-tubes for radiation experiments on synchrotrons are manufactured exclusively from beryllium. In scientific setups for various X-ray emission studies (e.g., energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy) the sample holder is usually made of beryllium because its emitted X-rays have much lower energies (~100 eV) than X-rays from most studied materials.

Low atomic number also makes beryllium relatively transparent to energetic particles. Therefore, it is used to build the beam pipe around the collision region in particle physics setups, such as all four main detector experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (ALICE, ATLAS, CMS, LHCb), the Tevatron and the SLAC. The low density of beryllium allows collision products to reach the surrounding detectors without significant interaction, its stiffness allows a powerful vacuum to be produced within the pipe to minimize interaction with gases, its thermal stability allows it to function correctly at temperatures of only a few degrees above absolute zero, and its diamagnetic nature keeps it from interfering with the complex multipole magnet systems used to steer and focus the particle beams.

Mechanical applications

Because of its stiffness, light weight and dimensional stability over a wide temperature range, beryllium metal is used for lightweight structural components in the defense and aerospace industries in high-speed aircraft, guided missiles, spacecraft, and satellites. Several liquid-fuel rockets have used rocket nozzles made of pure beryllium. Beryllium powder was itself studied as a rocket fuel, but this use has never materialized. A small number of extreme high-end bicycle frames have been built with beryllium. From 1998 to 2000, the McLaren Formula One team used Mercedes-Benz engines with beryllium-aluminium-alloy pistons. The use of beryllium engine components was banned following a protest by Scuderia Ferrari.

Mixing about 2.0% beryllium into copper forms an alloy called beryllium copper that is six times stronger than copper alone. Beryllium alloys are used in many applications because of their combination of elasticity, high electrical conductivity and thermal conductivity, high strength and hardness, nonmagnetic properties, as well as good corrosion and fatigue resistance. These applications include. As little as 50 parts per million of beryllium alloyed with liquid magnesium leads to a significant increase in oxidation resistance and decrease in flammability.

Beryllium Copper Adjustable Wrench
Beryllium Copper Adjustable Wrench

The high elastic stiffness of beryllium has led to its extensive use in precision instrumentation, e.g. in inertial guidance systems and in the support mechanisms for optical systems. Beryllium-copper alloys were also applied as a hardening agent in "Jason pistols", which were used to strip the paint from the hulls of ships.

Beryllium was also used for cantilevers in high performance phonograph cartridge styli, where its extreme stiffness and low density allowed for tracking weights to be reduced to 1 gram, yet still track high frequency passages with minimal distortion.

An earlier major application of beryllium was in brakes for military airplanes because of its hardness, high melting point, and exceptional ability to dissipate heat. Environmental considerations have led to substitution by other materials.

To reduce costs, beryllium can be alloyed with significant amounts of aluminium, resulting in the AlBeMet alloy (a trade name). This blend is cheaper than pure beryllium, while still retaining many desirable properties.


Beryllium mirrors are of particular interest. Large-area mirrors, frequently with a honeycomb support structure, are used, for example, in meteorological satellites where low weight and long-term dimensional stability are critical. Smaller beryllium mirrors are used in optical guidance systems and in fire-control systems, e.g. in the German-made Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 main battle tanks. In these systems, very rapid movement of the mirror is required which again dictates low mass and high rigidity. Usually the beryllium mirror is coated with hard electroless nickel plating which can be more easily polished to a finer optical finish than beryllium. In some applications, though, the beryllium blank is polished without any coating. This is particularly applicable to cryogenic operation where thermal expansion mismatch can cause the coating to buckle.

The James Webb Space Telescope will have 18 hexagonal beryllium sections for its mirrors. Because JWST will face a temperature of 33 K, the mirror is made of gold-plated beryllium, capable of handling extreme cold better than glass. Beryllium contracts and deforms less than glass – and remains more uniform – in such temperatures. For the same reason, the optics of the Spitzer Space Telescope are entirely built of beryllium metal.

Magnetic applications

Sphere Beryllium B52 - Gyrocompass

Beryllium is non-magnetic. Therefore, tools fabricated out of beryllium-based materials are used by naval or military explosive ordnance disposal teams for work on or near naval mines, since these mines commonly have magnetic fuzes. They are also found in maintenance and construction materials near magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines because of the high magnetic fields generated. In the fields of radio communications and powerful (usually military) radars, hand tools made of beryllium are used to tune the highly magnetic klystrons, magnetrons, traveling wave tubes, etc., that are used for generating high levels of microwave power in the transmitters.

Nuclear applications

Thin plates or foils of beryllium are sometimes used in nuclear weapon designs as the very outer layer of the plutonium pits in the primary stages of thermonuclear bombs, placed to surround the fissile material. These layers of beryllium are good "pushers" for the implosion of the plutonium-239, and they are good neutron reflectors, just as in beryllium-moderated nuclear reactors.

Beryllium is also commonly used in some neutron sources in laboratory devices in which relatively few neutrons are needed (rather than having to use a nuclear reactor, or a particle accelerator-powered neutron generator). For this purpose, a target of beryllium-9 is bombarded with energetic alpha particles from a radioisotope such as polonium-210, radium-226, plutonium-238, or americium-241. In the nuclear reaction that occurs, a beryllium nucleus is transmuted into carbon-12, and one free neutron is emitted, traveling in about the same direction as the alpha particle was heading. Such alpha decay driven beryllium neutron sources, named "urchin" neutron initiators, were used some in early atomic bombs. Neutron sources in which beryllium is bombarded with gamma rays from a gamma decay radioisotope, are also used to produce laboratory neutrons.

CANDU fuel bundles
Two CANDU fuel bundles: Each about 50 cm in length and 10 cm in diameter. Notice the small appendages on the fuel clad surfaces

Beryllium is also used in fuel fabrication for CANDU reactors. The fuel elements have small appendages that are resistance brazed to the fuel cladding using an induction brazing process with Be as the braze filler material. Bearing pads are brazed on to prevent fuel bundle to pressure tube contact, and inter-element spacer pads are brazed on to prevent element to element contact.

Beryllium is also used at the Joint European Torus nuclear-fusion research laboratory, and it will be used in the more advanced ITER to condition the components which face the plasma. Beryllium has also been proposed as a cladding material for nuclear fuel rods, because of its good combination of mechanical, chemical, and nuclear properties. Beryllium fluoride is one of the constituent salts of the eutectic salt mixture FLiBe, which is used as a solvent, moderator and coolant in many hypothetical molten salt reactor designs, including the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR).


The low weight and high rigidity of beryllium make it useful as a material for high-frequency speaker drivers. Because beryllium is expensive (many times more than titanium), hard to shape due to its brittleness, and toxic if mishandled, beryllium tweeters are limited to high-end home, pro audio, and public address applications. Some high-fidelity products have been fraudulently claimed to be made of the material.

Some high-end phonograph cartridges used beryllium cantilevers to improve tracking by reducing mass.


Beryllium is a p-type dopant in III-V compound semiconductors. It is widely used in materials such as GaAs, AlGaAs, InGaAs and InAlAs grown by molecular beam epitaxy (MBE). Cross-rolled beryllium sheet is an excellent structural support for printed circuit boards in surface-mount technology. In critical electronic applications, beryllium is both a structural support and heat sink. The application also requires a coefficient of thermal expansion that is well matched to the alumina and polyimide-glass substrates. The beryllium-beryllium oxide composite "E-Materials" have been specially designed for these electronic applications and have the additional advantage that the thermal expansion coefficient can be tailored to match diverse substrate materials.

Beryllium oxide is useful for many applications that require the combined properties of an electrical insulator and an excellent heat conductor, with high strength and hardness, and a very high melting point. Beryllium oxide is frequently used as an insulator base plate in high-power transistors in radio frequency transmitters for telecommunications. Beryllium oxide is also being studied for use in increasing the thermal conductivity of uranium dioxide nuclear fuel pellets. Beryllium compounds were used in fluorescent lighting tubes, but this use was discontinued because of the disease berylliosis which developed in the workers who were making the tubes.


Beryllium is a component of several dental alloys.

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