Beryllium Basics: Building On Strength As A Critical & Strategic Metal

December 14, 2012

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.

 

 

Alloyed in particular with copper, beryllium is used in electronics and electrical components including:

  • Cable and HD TV
  • Electrical contacts and connectors in cellphones and computers
  • Heat sinks
  • Spot-welding electrodes
  • Underwater fiber optic cable systems
  • Very-hi-fi loudspeakers

 

It is also to be found in:

  • Bellows
  • Sockets
  • Thermostats

 

Beryllium is also used extensively in space applications and in medicine for such things as pacemakers, X-ray machines, CAT scanners, MRI machinery and laser scalpels.

Over and above all these uses, the metal is—and looks to remain for some time—vital to the defense industry. In addition to its use in nuclear warheads, because of its low density, it is used in the construction of jet fighters, helicopters, spacecraft and satellites.

Beryllium is also found in missile gyroscope gimbals, sensors in and the actual structure of military satellites and military optics, especially forward-looking infrared systems and surveillance systems. (The fact that it is non-magnetic is an added attraction.)

Because of its strength at high temperatures, in military (and commercial) aircraft, it is also used extensively in landing gear, particularly the brakes. But whereas brakes in military aircraft will be 100 percent beryllium, those in commercial aircraft (not required to operate under such exacting conditions) will use the metal in an alloy form. It also helps (both in this context and when it is used in the oil and gas industry) that the metal is non-sparking.

In addition to telecommunications and consumer electronics, one of the areas of use currently exhibiting growth is its use in the automotive industry. As well as being used in brakes, power steering, ignition switches and air bag sensors, the metal is increasingly being used in engine control and electronic systems.

 

 

Beryllium Use in the U.S. – 2011 (based on sales revenues)

Source: USGS *Appliances, automotive electronics, energy, medical devices and other applications

 

Finding Beryllium

The U.S. remains both the single-largest producer of beryllium and host to the world's largest bertrandite mine, owned by Materion, at Spor Mountain in Utah.

Other countries hosting mines producing (or that have produced) beryl and/or other beryllium bearing minerals include Brazil, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Russia and Uganda. In the case of these five countries, past as well as present production figures (if the mines are still operating), are extremely difficult to discover.

The U.S. Geological Survey does (in its Minerals Yearbooks) provide estimated mine production figures for beryl from four other countries: China, Madagascar, Mozambique and Portugal.

Estimated World Mine Production (Tonnes Beryllium Content)

 

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

USA

152

176

120

180

210

China

20

20

20

22

22

Mozambique

6

1

2

2

2

Others

<0.5

<0.5

1

1

1

Source: USGS

 

While China may be the second-largest miner of beryl, with Ningxia Non-ferrous Metals Smeltery (NNMS) claiming to be "the only research center and production base for beryllium in China," Kazakhstan's KazAtomProm (the country's atomic authority), owner of the Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP), claims for itself the title of the world's second-largest producer of beryllium.

In its IR presentation on 2011 Financial Results, the company shows itself as having the second-largest share of total world production.

 

 

 

UMP Beryllium Production

Source: KazAtomProm

 

In its 2010 annual report, KazAtomProm give figures (described as "Production of beryllium output, tons") for the years 2008-1010 of 1,686, 712 and 1,817, respectively, with an expected output in 2011 of 1,906 tons.

And it its third-quarter 2012 results, the company said that: "In comparison with 9 months of 2011, the production indicators of Ulba Metallurgical Plant JSC illustrate 13 percent increase of the beryllium output." Unfortunately it is not possible to find out what those 2011 figures actually are; whereas during the '90s the company used to import beryllium concentrate from Russia, such production actually ceased in 1997. UMP has since then been using only the stocks it accumulated during the time of the Soviet Union.

There has always been quite some speculation as to the extent of the company's stockpile, but if the content of KazAtomProm's Eurobond prospectus of May 2010 is to be believed, then: "Ulba JSC owns a large quantity of beryllium ore inherited from the former Soviet Union, which is sufficient to supply its needs for over 15 years at the current rate of production."

And in the same prospectus, the company gave annual figures for sales of beryllium from 2007 to 2009 of 1,486.8, 1,608.0 and 884.0 tonnes, respectively.

Future Producers?

The last four years has seen both the appearance and fairly rapid disappearance of at least one would-be beryllium producer, and moves by at least two other entities to become involved on the mine production side.

BE Resources Inc. completed its IPO and listing on the TSX Venture Exchange in October 2009, with the intention of exploring and evaluating "a significant beryllium target in New Mexico, USA." Following a change in management team and the completion (announced in October 2011) of a "Review of Overall Strategy," the company appears to have abandoned beryllium for the time being, with the latest announcement on its website (dated January of this year), stating that it "continues to search for a suitable new project for the Company and to review its options for its New Mexico beryllium project which has been placed on care and maintenance."

In its fourth quarter (year ended June 30, 2012), "Management's Discussion and Analysis," Canada's IBC Advanced Alloys (the renamed International Beryllium Corp.) reported that after "evaluating the results of the last programs in the summer of 2012," it had concluded that most of its "mineral properties were unlikely to contain economic mineralization and decided suspend all exploration activity." These had included its claims at both Utah's Spor Mountain and its 100 percent interest in the Boomer mine at Lake George, Colo. It continues to maintain properties in Brazil, but is not currently pursuing exploration in them.

 

 

Several years ago in Russia, MBC Corp. (MBC), the management company of the Metropol group of companies' mining assets, signed an agreement with the UMP to develop a Russian-Kazakh project to build the Yermakovsky Mining Plant, which would produce beryllium hydroxide. Previously operated by Zabaikalsky GOK from 1979-1989, with its concentrates going to UMP, the Yermakovskoe project in the Russian republic of Buryatiya is now managed by MBC's Yermakovsky Mining and Smelting Co.

Considered one of the largest beryllium deposits in Russia, its beryllium resources total 5,700 tons of beryllium. MBC sees the ore supply lasting 50 years, and the output—starting in 2014 and both "basic 1st stage product," of beryllium hydroxide and beryllium metal—being 130 tons and 20 tons, respectively. Such projections, if all goes according to plan, would presage a healthy return to production for the Russian mine. One only wonders to whom they would be selling it.

The Marketplace

The beryllium market remains dominated by just a small handful of participants, the most significant on the mine production side being Materion (MTRN: US) and NNMS. These, along with UMP, continue to be the largest consumers of beryllium as a pure metal.

However, both NGK Insulators, Ltd. (NGKIF:US) (through NGK Metals Corp.) and Hunan Shui Kou Shan Nonferrous Metals Group Co., Ltd. (now part of China Minmetals Corp.) also remain significant consumers of beryllium. Of all these, only Materion and NGK Insulators are currently quoted.

IBC Advanced Alloys (IB:CN) is the only other significant player in the market that is quoted. Still a relatively young company, it has continued to develop its presence not only in markets in which the metal is already well understood, such as those using engineered beryllium—in particular, the defense aerospace industry—but also in the field of nuclear fuel.

Whereas four years ago some industry experts may have been skeptical of the potential of enhanced beryllium oxide nuclear fuel in power generation, R&D work undertaken by the company since then in conjunction with the likes of Purdue University, MIT and Texas A&M has, in the words of IBC's CEO Anthony Dutton ensured that now "the concept is accepted as a legitimate contender" in the field.

It appears that, not least because of its high rate of thermal conductivity, enhanced beryllium oxide fuel has the potential to offer significant improvements in the margin of safety in "off-normal" reactor events, which is a nuclear industry understatement for the likes of what happened at Fukushima in Japan. The next couple of years should see the company working hard on proof of concept.

Prospects For Beryllium

There currently look to be few reasons to revise the observation in HAI's 2008 beryllium article that "the prospects for beryllium appear to remain encouraging." Both supply and demand seem likely to continue to grow.

If indications from the automotive markets are anything to go by, there is considerable potential for growth in both. And—albeit probably a few years down the road yet—there is also the possible potential for the metal in nuclear power generation.

On the other hand, it will be interesting to see just how increased recycling of the beryllium in both new and old scrap (e.g., the beryllium parts from scrapped military aircraft) affects demand for the virgin metal. (The 2011 figure from the USGS of 10 percent of apparent consumption being attributable to recycling may in fact significantly understate the reality.)

 

 

That said, it must be remembered that while the metal and its alloys are not toxic in solid form, if beryllium enters the body by way of fumes, dust or soluble compounds, it can be extremely toxic, causing chronic beryllium disease. It is therefore likely with the knowledge and facilities they already have that the largest recyclers will be the leading companies, such as Materion, that already produce beryllium products.

And if this is actually the case, much of the beryllium recycled will tend to remain within "closed" recycling loops. (If nothing else, this will ensure that trying to forecast demand for the primary metal will be even more difficult than it already is!)

Afterword

For those who enjoy sleuthing, there is still some to do relating to beryllium. And I cannot find the answers.

USGS has noted that in 2009, imports of beryllium amounted to an estimated 24 tons. In 2011, the estimate was 91 tonnes. However, in 2010, the figure was a massive 271 tonnes.

The five questions are:

1) Who sold it?

2) Who bought it?

3) How many shipments were there: two, three?

4) In what form was it?

5) What was the actual value of the beryllium imported?

I am afraid I can offer no prize, save for a mention at the beginning of my next article.

Happy sleuthing!

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