The Beryllium Day Thread

Welcome back to the Element Open Threads, my ongoing struggle to write about elements faster than scientists can synthesize new ones. Today, by popular demand, we’ll discuss beryllium, element #4.

Broadly speaking, the lower an element’s number is, the more common it is, and even-numbered elements are more common than odd-numbered elements.


But there’s an odd gap between helium and carbon. Lithium, beryllium and boron are all rarer than they should be, based on their placement in the sequence. This can be explained by how the elements are made:


Still with me? Beryllium, boron and some of the lithium are made by cosmic ray fission, a process I explained back in the Boron Day Thread a year ago. It is going to take me forEVER to get through the whole periodic table at this rate.

In fact, according to a book I read and didn’t fully understand, stars (or at least our Sun, I think) make plenty of beryllium, but then uses it all up making carbon. Two hydrogens are fused to make one helium; two heliums are fused to make one beryllium, which then has one more helium tacked on. This is called the triple-alpha process, and it will be on the test.


So we’re stuck here on Earth waiting for cosmic rays to fuck up some oxygen atoms for us to make beryllium atoms. Here’s one we made earlier:


Alright, cool, gather up a few more of these and get ready to make exciting structural alloys. Beryllium is light and strong. It sees use in bike frames and golf clubs, but my favorite application is beryllium copper.


Beryllium makes for bronzes that are strong but sparkless, which is a must-have when you’re working in an environment where a spark could mean an explosion. As an added bonus, it makes the copper look sinister and untrustworthy.

Beryllium can be dangerous. The chief hazards (according to Wikipedia) are acute or chronic inhalation diseases. A weird additional danger is that, despite being toxic, beryllium tastes sweet. It joins ethylene glycol and the ominously named Sugar of Lead on the list of sweet toxins.


Last but not least, beryllium is transparent to x-rays. This quality is exploited for its use in radiation windows. Wikipedia isn’t super clear on why you would want what amounts to an oven window on your x-ray source. I would just as soon leave the x-rays in the box they’re in.