A Strategic and Critical Metal
Beryllium is one of the lightest and stiffest metals, but there was little industrial demand for it until
the 1930s and 1940s when the aerospace, defense, and nuclear sectors began using beryllium and its
compounds. Beryllium is now classified by the U.S. Department of Defense as a strategic and critical
material because it is used in products that are vital to national security.
The oxide form of beryllium
was identified in 1797, and scientists first isolated metallic beryllium in 1828.
Beryllium and some beryllium compounds are toxic and must be handled carefully. Workplace related exposures to dusts or fumes of beryllium and beryllium compounds are known to cause serious health problems, such as cancer or chronic beryllium disease, which is an immune system response that can damage the lungs. Proper workplace practices prevent these exposures.
Uses of Beryllium
Beryllium-copper alloys account for approximately 80 percent of the beryllium used in the United States. These alloys are strong, hard, and nonmagnetic; they are good conductors of electricity and heat, and they resist corrosion and fatigue. Beryllium alloys are used in making connectors, springs, switches, and other components of electronic and electrical devices for aerospace, automobile, computer, defense, medical, telecommunications, and other products.
Physical Properties of Beryllium
Beryllium metal is very light and very stiff-on a weight-to-weight basis, beryllium is six times stiffer than steel, and it maintains its shape at high and low temperatures. Beryllium metal is used in the aerospace and defense industries to make lightweight precision instruments.
The mirrors of the Spitzer Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is scheduled for launch in 2018, are made of beryllium. The primary mirror of the JWST contains 18 hexagonal segments (each segment is 4.3 feet in diameter) that must maintain their exact shape even at temperatures of -400 degrees Fahrenheit and must be light enough to be carried into orbit; the telescope will operate approximately 1 million miles above Earth.
Beryllium is almost transparent to x-rays, and beryllium foil is used as window material in x-ray and other radiation machines. In nuclear reactors, beryllium metal and beryllium oxide are used to control fission reactions. Beryllium has also been used in the trigger mechanisms for nuclear weapons.
Where Does Beryllium Come From?
Two minerals, bertrandite and beryl, are mined for beryllium, and both are found in association
with igneous rocks. All the beryllium currently being mined in the United States comes from the
A complex series of events must take place to concentrate beryllium into
bertrandite. First, a magma that is rich in fluorine, beryllium, and silica must erupt in an area where
there are carbonate rocks (limestone or dolomite). If heat from the magma warms the groundwater
in the area and causes the water to move through the surrounding rocks, the water picks up elements,
including beryllium, from those rocks; the water may then react with suitable igneous or sedimentary
rocks to crystallize minerals, including bertrandite.
The mineral beryl is the main source of beryllium mined outside the United States. Beryl is most
often found in veins or pegmatites, which are rocks that contain the last minerals to crystallize from a
large igneous intrusion. Pegmatites are distinguished by large interlocking crystals that often include
unusual elements and minerals.
Pure beryl crystals are colorless, but the inclusion of other elements
in beryl creates colorful, valuable gemstones. The green color in emerald is due to traces of chromium
and sometimes vanadium in the beryl crystal lattice. The pale blue to blue-green color of aquamarine
is caused by iron atoms with an oxidation state of +2 (Fe2+); other elements in beryl crystals produce
colors that range from gold to red. America's largest faceted emerald, a 64-carat gemstone, was cut
from a 310-carat dark green crystal found at the Adams Emerald Mine in North Carolina in 2009.
Beryllium Supply and Demand
The United States is the world's leading source of beryllium. A single mine at Spor Mountain,
Utah, produced more than 85 percent of the beryllium mined worldwide in 2010. China produced
most of the remainder, and less than 2 percent came from Mozambique and other countries.
National stockpiles also provide significant amounts of beryllium for processing.
China, Kazakhstan, and the United States-process beryllium ore. In 2005, the U.S. Department
of Defense began a partnership with a private-sector company to build a new processing facility
in Ohio to produce high-purity beryllium metal. The processing facility was completed in 2011,
and up to two-thirds of its output was to be allocated for defense and other Government-related
The United States imported approximately 34 percent of the beryllium raw materials
it used in 2011, including beryllium metal and other processed beryllium materials used in
manufacturing; two-thirds of this material came from Russia and Kazakhstan.
Beryllium that is recycled from scrap left over from the manufacture of beryllium-bearing
products may provide approximately 10 percent of U.S. apparent consumption. Apparent
consumption is a measure of the amount of a material that is actually used, calculated as
production + imports - exports ± changes in Government or industry stocks.
United States Beryllium Resources
The United States is likely to be able to meet most of its beryllium requirements from domestic sources.
There are substantial proven reserves of bertrandite
at Spor Mountain, Utah, and there are beryllium resources in other areas of
Utah and Alaska. Approximately 65 percent of the estimated global resources of
nonpegmatitic beryllium is located in the United States. The U.S. Department of
Defense aims to hold approximately 45 metric tons of hot-pressed beryllium metal
powder in the National Defense Stockpile.
Ensuring Future Beryllium Supplies
To help predict where future beryllium supplies might be located, USGS
scientists study how and where beryllium resources are concentrated in Earth's
crust and use that knowledge to assess the likelihood that undiscovered beryllium
resources may exist. Techniques to assess mineral resources have been developed
by the USGS to support the stewardship of Federal lands and to better evaluate
mineral resource availability in a global context. The USGS also compiles
statistics and information on the worldwide supply of, demand for, and flow of
beryllium. These data are used to inform U.S. national policymaking.
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View of the back of one of the 18 beryllium mirror segments for the James Webb Space Telescope. The
ribs at the back of the mirror help to maintain the mirror's strength and ability to hold its shape under extreme
conditions. The front of the mirror is completely smooth and coated in a thin film of gold. Photograph courtesy of
the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Photo courtesy of NASA.
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|Four varieties of gemstone-quality beryl: from back left, going clockwise: morganite (pinkish-orange), heliodor (yellow). green beryl (pale green), aquamarine (blue-green).
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other aerospace vehicles rely on electrical and mechanical components made of beryllium alloys.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.
Did You Know? Beryllia (beryllium oxide) ceramics are often used to contain and control lasers used in surgery.
 Beryllium: United States Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summary, January, 2012.
 Beryllium: United States Geological Survey, Minerals Yearbook, April, 2012.
 Beryllium Recycling in the United States: Larry D. Cunningham, United States Geological Survey Circular 1196-P, 2004.
 An Occurrence Model for the National Assessment of Volcanogenic Beryllium Deposits: Nora K. Foley, Robert R. Seal, II, Nadine M. Piatak, and Brianna Hetland, United States Geological Survey, Open-File Report 2010-1195, 2010.