The mineral beryl, which contains beryllium, has been used at least since the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt. The name ‘beryllium’ was first used in 1828, when two chemists, Friedrich Wöhler (German) and Antoine Bussy (French), independently isolated beryllium by the chemical reaction of metallic potassium with beryllium chloride.
Beryllium is six times stronger than steel and has a very high heat capacity. In small amounts, it prevents metal fatigue failure in alloys. It is very rare and is seldom found in economic mineral deposits.
Applications of Beryllium:
- Metal: Because of its lightness and strength, beryllium metal is used in satellites and aerospace structural components. Beryllium is transparent to x-rays and accordingly is used in x-ray tube windows. Due to its nuclear properties, beryllium is used in nuclear and fusion power generation in shielding and as a neutron moderator, and in particle accelerators. Its antimagnetic properties lead to use in inertial navigation systems and its anti-sparking properties lend to its use in handling of explosives. It is also used in radio speakers, micro-wave ovens, computer chips, sub-sea petroleum gathering systems and in cosmogenic age dating.
- Alloys: The largest end-use of beryllium is in alloys formed with copper and aluminum. It is found in aerospace applications, skidoos, motorcycles, ATV and automobile suspension, electronics, circuit boards, electrical and electronic connectors, electromechanical devices, spring functions such as keyboards and computer printers, non-sparking explosive handling tools, undersea oil wellheads and gathering systems, electric motors, generators, alternators, fibre optics and lasers, air-bag connectors and contacts, thermostats and eyeglass frames.
- Ceramics: Beryllium ceramics (or ‘beryllia’) are used for computer chip heat sinks, radio tubes, microwaves and electrical insulators.
- Other: The unique properties of beryllium also lend to its use in medical diagnostic equipment and heart implants.
While beryllium in solid form and in finished products presents no special health risks, studies have identified a range of health effects with solubility of the chemical form of beryllium, including respiratory diseases. Depending on how workers are exposed, the diseases can affect different tissues and organs.