The Sceptical Chymist | Element of the month: A brighter beryllium

Published in Chemistry

As you might already be aware, each month, someone writes a page in the journal about one element. These short pieces are pretty informal, and often include some anecdotes or historical tales about a particular element. As we make our way through the periodic table, I’ve been wanting to share some of these stories with you.

In our May issue, Ralph Puchta from the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg tells us about beryllium.

Did you know that beryllium plays an important role in the nuclear carbon formation in space? Under just the right conditions, two 24He nuclei (also known as alpha particles) first combine into a 48Be atom which can then — despite its instability — form one 612C atom on encountering a third alpha particle.

It is also present in nature in pretty gemstones such as emeralds and aquamarines, which essentially consist of beryl (beryllium aluminium cyclosilicate), with a few transition metal impurities that give them their colour. Beryl is the mineral from which beryllium was first isolated in 1798 and, obviously, named — although ‘glucinium’ had also been proposed at the time, because beryllium salts tasted sweet. ‘Glucinium’ was finally abandoned after nearly 160 years of using the two names.

Semantics aside, beryllium and a lot of its compounds are known to be toxic (so I wouldn’t want to taste exactly how sweet they are myself!), in particular in the form of powders, and should be handled with care. Still, it displays an array of properties that are attractive for applications ranging from radiation windows for X-ray tubes (it doesn’t absorb X-rays much) to aerospace and military usages (it is light, stiff and resists low temperatures). Beryllium could even soon find its way in the processors of quantum computers.

I’ll let you find out more trivia from Puchta’s article [subscription required to read the article]

Oh – and have we mentioned that we’re running a writing competition based on this ‘in your element’ feature?

We look forward to reading your articles!


Anne Pichon (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

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