Friday, December 4, 2009

December's Element of the Month: Beryllium!

December's Element of the Month:

Atomic Mass: 9.01 amu
Melting Point: 1287 °C
Boiling Point: 2469 °C

Beryllium has a very low atomic number, so it gets to hang out with all of the popular elements like Hydrogen and Oxygen and Carbon and Nitrogen in the Single-Digits Club. It's actually pretty rare, though. I mean, it's thousands of times more common than Ruthenium, of course, but it's still only the 48th most common element on the crust of our little planet, coming in behind such minor-leaguers as Gadolinium, Dysprosium, and Ytterbium. It's rare because it's too unstable to be generated in stars by hydrogen-helium nucleosynthesis, like most matter is, so what we've got comes mostly straight from the Big Bang.

The Centerfold!

In nature, Beryllium is only found in compounds with other elements. Once you isolate it, it's a very light, strong metal, only a quarter the weight of steel and much stiffer. It has a high melting point, it's not magnetic, and it doesn't expand and contract very much with temperature changes. This all gives it a lot of applications in aerospace, where its low wieght and ability to withstand heat and stress have obvious value. They use this stuff to make rocket nozzles, for crying out loud! It's handy in alloys, and is often used to strengthen copper. It also has some specialty uses; guys who detect and disarm land and sea mines often use Beryllium tools because they won't set off magnetic triggers.

If you are in the market for Beryllium, you should be able to get a modest amount; it runs at about $500 per kilogram. Think before you buy, though, as this stuff is extremely toxic. Skin contact and inhalation can cause you no end of grief, and the existence of phrases like "Chronic Beryllium Disease" and "Chronic Berylliosis" should give you pause even before you realize that every Beryllium compound is classified as a Category 1 carcinogen. That's why they stopped using it in flourescent lights back in the 1940s, and why you should think twice before getting your child the "Lil' Mine Defuser" playset this holiday season. It's also considered a bad idea to lick Beryllium nowadays, despite that one of its oddest features is that it is very sweet -- for a long time, a lot of periodic tables called it Glucinium (Gl), meaning basically the "sugar-metal."

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 4
Eric Gill, The Manger. Wood Engraving. 1.95" x 1.95" From Eric Gill's Book of Engravings, 1929.


Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

I would say there are some nice elements to this blog.

Ben said...

I love the honesty of the advertisement: "...we feel we'll be ready to try our wings, or help you try yours..."

Modern advertising would promise you that it would absolutely work, whether it did or not. It would also downplay any inexperience.

Kate said...

Isn't it a Beryllium sphere that the Galaxy Quest crew has to find on the planet with the mean babies?