The Surprising Industrial History of Beryl

The Surprising Industrial History of Beryl

When people think of beryl they tend to envision images of crown jewels, pendants, and rings: Aquamarine, Emerald, Morganite, etc. Yet beryl has a surprising amount of uses that have likely gone unnoticed in the modern world by many.

So what is beryl? Beryl is an beryllium rich alumino-silicate mineral (Be₃Al₂SiO₆). It can be very lustrous and gemmy or as pictured above, not so much. The mineral's industrial use however comes from the beryllium inside of it. The element was first identified as an oxide and isolated in beryl by French chemist Louis-Nicholas Vauquelin. As one does, he tasted the substance and named it glucinium (like glucose) because it tasted sweet. It was thirty years before the element itself was isolated.

Nearly one hundred years after beryllium oxide was tasted, in the 1930s, beryllium found a commercial use in medical x-ray windows and radio tubes but it was another decade before the beryllium craze took off. Just as with many modern conveniences, the element hit it's stride with national defense during the Second World War. The element had remarkable corrosion resistant properties that were used in marine diesel engines. Beryllium was used for parachute clips since it is strong and remarkably lightweight. Furthermore it found applications in navigational and gyroscopic equipment due to being lightweight and non-magnetic. However beryllium mining (in the form of beryl) found yet another major boon due to one other surprising quality. Beryllium in it's purest state has the ability to moderate neutrons. Meaning that it could be used as a defensive, or rather, fail safe measure in the development and deployment of nuclear technology. At the time a large quantity of the beryl used in beryllium production in the U.S. came from Colorado like the pieces pictured above.

Today beryllium is considered a material of strategic interest to the U.S. government. After the 1940s it shifted into applications for space exploration (the James Webb Telescope uses optical grade beryllium in it's primary mirror), automotive applications, as well as telecommunication uses and advances in renewable energy production. Due to it's unique thermal and electrical properties it even played a part in the advances that lead to the personal computers many of us use every day. While many of us would never shun a gem grade emerald there is no doubt that beryl has played a surprising role in each and every one of our lives in the west.

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