Lighter and stronger than steel with a very high melting point, beryllium's role is growing more and more important to defense industries.
Back in December 2008, the Department of Defense's Strategic Materials Protection Board held a meeting to discuss beryllium and whether the material was "strategic" and "critical" to national security.
In the end, they decided beryllium still was and would remain both critical and strategic to national defense.
Earlier that year, in June 2008, the DoD had used the authorities of Title III of the Defense Production Act to contract with Materion Corp. to build and operate a new high-purity beryllium production facility. Now with the board's endorsement, startup was expected in 2010. (Materion is the renaming of Brush Wellman Inc.)
After the usual delays, the plant actually opened in 2011, with the company saying in its 2011 Annual Report (published in March 2012) that: "In the first quarter of 2012, the start-up of the facility was ongoing, but the Company expects the facility to reach capacity levels in excess of 2012 demand levels." And according to the same report: "The total cost of this multi-year project is estimated to be $100.0 million, with the DoD providing approximately 73 percent of the funding."
However, even by late October this year, the plant was still not fully up and running, with the company stating in the announcement of its third-quarter results: "The start up of the new beryllium plant is progressing well" and that it expected the plant "to fully meet projected production needs for the coming year."
Critical Now In The EU, Too
With the increased interest in the issue of criticality—not confined to the U.S. alone—in its Critical Raw Materials for the EU report in June 2010, the ad hoc working group on defining critical raw materials listed beryllium as one of 14 critical raw materials. And in its "risk lists" of 2011 and 2012, beryllium has been placed by the British Geological in 16th and 10th position, respectively.
In September of this year, the Directorate-General for Internal Policies (Policy Department A: Economic and Scientific Policy) came out with a very interesting study titled Substitutionability of Critical Raw Materials that includes beryllium. It notes quite prominently: "Europe is nearly 100 percent dependent on imports from the US, Canada, China and Brazil but the US has been restricting exports due to beryllium's identification as a strategic metal."
A Brief Recap
Here's a brief recap as to why beryllium is so important.
After lithium, beryllium is the second-lightest metal we know, but even with its very low density (1.85 grams/cubic centimeter), it has a very high melting point: 1,278° C. (Lithium has a very low melting point: 180.54° C.)
Beryllium is also very tough, whether you are considering its rigidity, resistance to creep, shear strength, tensile strength, comprehensive yield strength or just its fracture toughness.
Although only two-thirds the weight of aluminum and a quarter of the weight of steel, on a kilogram for kilogram basis, beryllium is actually six times stronger than steel. In addition both to being non-magnetic and having excellent thermal conductivity—such as moly and rhenium—it also remains stable over a wide range of temperatures.
When it comes to nuclear properties, beryllium has a high scattering cross section, making it an ideal neutron moderator. It is also an excellent reflector: great in bombs—in Little Boy and Fat Man (exploded over Japan in World War II) it reflected back the neutrons from the fission reaction, thereby preventing leakage—and in reactors it scatters leaked neutrons back into the core. It is also excellent for making blast shields.