Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Element of the month: A brighter beryllium

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)


  1. Report this comment

    Andre Saharig said:

    Very informative. Thank you for posting!

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    Bruce Cunningham said:

    Today, most beryllium and beryllium compounds are derived from bertrandite.

    Inhalation is the primary route of exposure although there is some information that skin contact is also a route of exposure. Certainly breaks in skin are a route. In any event, exposure in SUSCEPTIBLE individuals may lead to CBD (chronic beryllium disease) characterized by an “allergic” response reducing the lung’s ability to transfer gases across the walls of the alveoli. At high exposures an acute berylliosis can occur. This is rare today because manufacturer’s are aware of the detrimental health effects of exposure.

    A good deal of information on commercial beryllium, beryllium alloys and beryllium compounds applications and health is available at .

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    milkshake said:

    Beryllium is a nasty allergen indeed, both in a soluble form and as a metal powder – and over the years the occupational exposure limits got so severe that even US military now does not like to use Be metal components in nuclear weapons. (but they are stuck with it because of the currently weaponized designs. One of the motives behind the new RRW warhead design program was to replace Be neutron reflectors with less problematic materials)

    It is too bad: Organoberyllium chemistry had some really promising reagents, for example R-CO-Be-Cl is formed Grignard-like from acyl chlorides and Be powder and behaving like true acyl anion equivalent. But nobody wants to work with stoechiometric Be reagent even on a lab scale