6. The Present Status of Beryllium


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L L Scott: 6. The Present Status of Beryllium. 1941.



From the time in the early 1920’s that metallic beryllium was first available in very small quantities in this country, the element has been surrounded with fantastic stories crediting it with almost unachievable properties. Being one of the lightest of the metallic elements; in fact occupying the fourth place of the periodic system, preceded only by hydrogen, helium and lithium and yet having a reputed modulus some thirty percent higher than steel, early experimenters made fabulous claims concerning its extraordinary virtues in light metal alloys. Reading one of the first United States patents pertaining to beryllium is enough to make a modern airplane designer’s mouth water with anticipation. According to this patent dated March 16, 1920, beryllium could be readily melted with aluminum to form alloys of extreme lightness, combined with high rigidity, tensile strength and resistance to heat and oxidation, which were of great importance in construction of machines for aerial navigation: and for the moving parts of high speed mechanisms, such as for example, pistons of gasoline engines. The wondermetal, beryllium, was even said to alloy with lithium to make a high strength oxidation resistant and corrosion resistant alloy with a specific gravity of about 1.5. Amazing alloys of beryllium and magnesium were also claimed, which were to produce untold wonders in the mechanical world.
Unfortunately, many of these loose statements have permeated the popular scientific literature on metallurgical subjects over the past fifteen years, and even today many persons not closely familiar with the subject think of beryllium as a mystery metal, currently used in some secret manner in the aviation industry. In 1930 one of the prominent engineering magazines stated that if beryllium was available in quantity, an airplane then carrying 4500 pounds of payload could carry 7550 pounds, or about l6 additional passengers. As late as February 1940, an article in the Los Angeles Times reported that any prospector finding a deposit containing 500.000 tons of recoverable beryllium ore could get a check for a million dollars from some airplane factory owner.
As a matter of fact, it is not as a light metal, nor as an ingredient of light metal alloys that beryllium has achieved industrial prominence. Although the element does have a low specific gravity, approximately 1.8, and an indicated Young’s modulus of elasticity in the order of 40,000.000 psi, the pure metal is still more or less a relatively expensive laboratory curiosity.


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