There are a handful of places in the world where europium-containing ore is mined, but deposits of the rare element europium (atomic number 63) are in short supply. Few people cared until the invention of the television.
Early color television programs were barely colored: The blues were muted, yellows appeared somewhat bleached out and whites were dingy and grayish. The reason? Nobody could find a way to reproduce a strong, rich red color, so the other colors were toned down to maintain some balance.
Then, once it was discovered that europium reproduced a robust red in television (And later, computer) screens, the scramble for europium supplies was on. Mines in China, Russia and a small mine in California supply most of the world’s europium.
First discovered in 1879, scandium (atomic number 21) was named for Scandinavia by chemist Lars Fredrik Nilson. Though it’s fairly common in the Earth’s crust, nobody had any real use for this silvery metal until about 100 years after its discovery.
But in the 1970s, metallurgists found that aluminum-scandium alloys are strong and lightweight, making it useful in aerospace components. It wasn’t long before sporting-equipment manufacturers started using the alloys in everything from baseball bats to lacrosse sticks.
In Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi story “Sucker Bait,” scientists struggle to understand why all the colonists of the planet known as Junior died after settling on its surface. Finally, one mutinous renegade realizes that high levels of beryllium in the soil caused the colonists to slowly die of berylliosis.
The dangers of beryllium aren’t just the stuff of fiction, however: The element (atomic number 4) is recognized as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.In another form, however, beryllium is highly desirable, even priceless. When combined with trace amounts of chromium, beryllium takes on a beautiful green hue as the gemstone commonly known as the emerald.
Few elements are weirder than gallium: A relatively soft, glittering metal, it’s widely used today in semiconductors and other electronics, as well as in the pharmaceutical industry.
But in years past, gallium (atomic number 31) was a key part of a favorite parlor trick for magicians because it melts when it’s just slightly warmer than room temperature. Thus, spoons that are made of gallium look normal, but when dipped into a cup of hot tea will instantly dissolve. Even holding a gallium spoon in your hand too long will create a drippy, metallic mess.
Tellurium, a silvery-white metal first discovered in Transylvania, is often used in solar panels, computer memory chips and rewritable optical discs. Its name comes from the Latin word for earth (tellus).
Tellurium (atomic number 52) is considered by most experts to be mildly toxic, though it’s unusual to find someone who has suffered serious harm from it. How to tell if someone has been exposed to high levels of tellurium? As their body metabolizes telluride, their breath will have a pungent, garlic-like odor — as befits an element first found in Dracula’s legendary homeland.
“Hoarding gold is for libertarians. Bitcoin mining is for nerds,” wrote Jonathon Keats in Wired. “Really adventurous investors — especially fans of the stranger stretches of the periodic table — ought to consider stockpiling something more intense, like industrially valuable exotic elements.”
High on the list of rare, valuable elements is dysprosium (atomic number 66), which is named after the ancient Greek dysprositos, meaning “hard to get,” appropriately enough. The soft, metallic substance is in big demand for electric motors, especially those in electric vehicles and wind turbines, which has earned dysprosium a place on the U.S. Department of Energy’s list of critical materials for the green economy.
Uniquely strong and light, beryllium is used to make cell phones, missiles and aircrafts. But workers who handle the metal need to watch out, as airborne beryllium has been known to be highly toxic.
Named after beryllos, the Greek name for the mineral beryl, the element was originally known as glucinium — from Greekglykys, meaning “sweet” — to reflect its characteristic taste. But the chemists who discovered this unique property of beryllium also found that it is in fact highly toxic and should therefore never be tasted, according to Jefferson Lab. In fact, the metal, its alloys and salts should only be handled in accordance with specific work codes. Beryllium is also classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and it can cause lung cancer in people who get exposed to beryllium on a daily basis because of their occupations that require them to mine or process the metal, said Dr. Lew Pepper, a medical researcher at Queens College Center for the Biology of Natural Systems in New York.
Despite its toxicity, the element is highly useful because of its unique qualities. For instance, it is one of the lightest metals and has one of the highest melting points among the light metals, according to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Steel gray in color, beryllium’s modulus of elasticity is about one-third greater than steel. Beryllium is nonmagnetic and resistant to concentrated nitric acid. It also has superior thermal conductivity and resists oxidation in air in normal temperatures.
Just the facts
Atomic number (number of protons in the nucleus): 4
Number of isotopes (atoms of the same element with a different number of neutrons): 12, including one stable isotope.
Most common isotopes: 9Be (Natural abundance: 100 percent)
Beryllium discovery and use
Beryllium was discovered in 1798 by the French chemist Louis Nicolas Vauquelin, who found it in the oxide form in beryl and a green-colored variety of beryl, emerald.The metal was isolated in 1828 by two chemists, Friedrich Wölhler from Germany and Antoine Bussy from France, who independently reduced beryllium chloride (BeCl2) with potassium in a platinum crucible, according to the Jefferson Lab. These days, beryllium is typically obtained from the minerals beryl and bertrandite in a chemical process or through the electrolysis of a mixture of molten beryllium chloride and sodium chloride, the Jefferson Lab reports.
Beryllium is found in about 30 mineral species, including bertrandite, beryl, chrysoberyl, and phenacite, according to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Beryl and bertrandite are the most important commercial sources of the element and its compounds.
Beryllium is alloyed with copper or nickel to make springs, gyroscopes, electrical contacts, spot-welding electrodes and non-sparking tools, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry. Other beryllium alloys are used in high-speed aircrafts and missiles, as well as spacecraft and communication satellites. Beryllium copper is also used in windshield frame, brake discs, support beams, and other structural components of the space shuttle.
Thanks to its low thermal neutron absorption cross-section, beryllium is used in nuclear reactors as a reflector or moderator. Moreover, the high melting point of beryllium oxide makes it a useful material for nuclear work and ceramic applications, according to the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Emerald, morganite and aquamarine are precious forms of beryl. Some of the oldest emerald mines were developed by the Romans in the Eastern Desert of Egypt about 2,000 years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The U.S. Department of Defense classifies beryllium as a strategic and critical material as it can be found in products that are essential to national security, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The United States is the world’s leading beryllium source and producer. In fact, just one mine at Spor Mountain, Utah, was the source of more than 85 percent of beryllium excavated worldwide in 2010, theUSGS reports.
Beryllium is highly transparent to X-rays and is therefore used in windows for X-ray tubes, according to Jefferson Lab.
Louis Nicolas Vauquelin — the chemist who discovered beryllium also discovered another element — chromium.
Beryllium has long been a topic of interest to researchers who have examined its harmful effects on health in people who are exposed to the metal on a daily basis for long periods of time. However, this risk does not apply to people in the general population who do not actually handle beryllium, Pepper said.
“Beryllium becomes harmful when it is generated into an airborne particulate … which is inhaled and descends into the lungs, and it can have an immunologic response in the individual,” Pepper told Live Science. This immunologic response, called beryllium sensitization, can then develop into chronic beryllium disease, which causes scarring of the lung tissue and can be deadly. There is currently no cure for the disease, whose progression can be slowed by medication, oxygen therapy, and lung transplants in severe cases, according to the University of California San Francisco Medical Center.
Interestingly, not all those who get exposed to potentially harmful levels of beryllium will experience an allergic, potentially deadly reaction. “There is a genetic susceptibility component, which means that not everyone who is exposed is at risk of going on to develop sensitization, then chronic beryllium disease,” Pepper said. “For the most part, it depends upon a genetic susceptibility,” he said.
About 85 percent of people who develop chronic beryllium disease after getting exposed have an immune system protein known as HLA-DP2, according to recent research published in July 2014 in the journal Cell. In the study, researchers determined that the bodies of people who have this protein create a unique molecular “pocket,” which captures beryllium ions and triggers an inflammatory response in the lungs.
“The immune system does not actually ‘see’ beryllium,” study author John Kappler, a researcher at National Jewish Health, said in a statement. “The beryllium changes the shape of otherwise innocuous self-peptides [peptides produced by the body’s own tissues] so that T cells recognize them as foreign and dangerous.” (T cells are white blood cells that are essential for one’s immunity.) He added that the new findings could one day lead to new therapeutic strategies to treat and prevent chronic beryllium disease.
This video shows how beryllium is extracted in the West Desert of Utah.
Here is also a series of practical videos on beryllium worker safety training.
Dating geological events with beryllium
Using a technique known as cosmogenic nuclide dating, scientists can determine how long rocks have been exposed to the air by measuring their levels of beryllium-10, a radioactive isotope of beryllium. Cosmogenic nuclide dating is often used to determine the dates of important geological events, such as glacier advances and retreats, rock slides, meteor impacts and lava flows.
For example, after a rock avalanche, boulders that land on top of the heap have surfaces that are exposed to the sky for the first time. Particles from incoming cosmic rays (high-energy radiation from outer space) begin to hit these boulder surfaces, creating beryllium-10. The longer the surface area is exposed, the greater the amount of beryllium-10, according to the University of Utah.
In a recent study, researchers at the University of Utah conducted the first rigorous analysis to date a landslide that had occurred thousands of years ago in what is now Zion National Park in Utah. Scientists have known for some time that the flat floor of this park was previously a lake originally created when a massive rock avalanche dammed up the Virgin River, but it was still unclear exactly when this landslide occurred. To find out, the researchers analyzed the levels of beryllium-10 in 12 boulders taken from the area.
Their findings conclude that the rock avalanche occurred about 4,800 years ago as a single event, with a range of uncertainty that gives or takes 400 years, according to the University of Utah. Their work was published in 2016 in GSA Today, the journal of the Geological Society of America.
A graceful bronze arm that was once attached to a statue dating to the first century was recently recovered from a famed shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera. That site has already yielded a treasure trove of artifacts, including the mysterious astronomical computer and calculator called the Antikythera mechanism.
The newly discovered limb joins other bronze and marble statue fragments discovered during the same expedition. Together, these artifacts indicate that there are likely more statues to be found buried in the seabed around the wrecked vessel, representatives of the “Return to Antikythera” project reported in a statement released today (Oct. 4).
Divers with the expedition, part of an international partnership under the supervision of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports (HMCS), visited Antikythera between Sept. 4 and 20 and recovered other precious relics in addition to the statue pieces, according to the statement. Those finds included a mysterious metal disk decorated with an image of a bull. [In Photos: Diving for Famed Antikythera Shipwreck]
As it happens, a bronze statue arm was also the very first object recovered from the wreck when it was discovered in 1900, according to theexcavation project website.
Experts afterward determined that the vessel likely sank between 70 B.C. and 60 B.C., and is 2,085 years old. It carried a vast cargo of luxury goods, including glassware, gemstones, coins and jewelry, and statues of marble and bronze; hundreds of these objects were recovered in 1976 in an expedition conducted by the underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau.
During the recent expedition, archaeologists were drawn to certain features on a part of the seafloor that suggested the area might merit a closer look, field project co-director Brendan Foley, a researcher with the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Lund University in Sweden, told Live Science in an email. Those features included a red marble plaque and a marble statue base.
“We investigated further, test trenched [dug trenches at the site without excavating further], metal detected and began to find extremely interesting finds, including wooden-hull remains, large bronze nails and spikes from the hull, and then the bronze sculpture elements,” Foley said.
In addition to the bronze arm and the marble pieces, the archaeologists found a bronze statue piece with clothing folds, and a highly oxidized disk with four holes punched along its edge, HMCS representatives reported in a statement. Scans of the disk revealed the shape of “possibly a bovine animal” under layers of detritus and corrosion, according to the statement.
The scientists also found wooden ship parts; their condition and location, relative to where the cargo was found, will help experts peer back in time and reconstruct the scene of the shipwreck, HMCS representatives said.
Many fascinating objects have emerged from the site over time, but one of the best-known finds is a celestial calculator known as the Antikythera mechanism, which was also salvaged during initial dives to the site in 1900. This complex machine is thought to be capable of displaying dates, the positions of the moon and sun, and planetary cycles, as well as predicting eclipses over a period of 223 months.
Then, in August 2016, archaeologists detected evidence of human remainsin the wreck, providing a possible source of ancient DNA. The remains, a skeleton, were not the first found at the site; bones were also recovered from the Antikythera shipwreck in 1976. But for the first time, technology existed that could allow scientists to extract genetic information from the preserved organic material.
While the prospect of an ancient “computer” or the extraction of 2,000-year-old DNA sounds arguably more exciting than the newly discovered statue arm, the recent finds are historically significant, Foley told Live Science. Few bronze sculptures from ancient Greece have survived to the modern age, and none that were previously found underwater were recovered directly from an archaeological site, he said. This provides critical historical context for artifacts, he explained.
The scientists’ work is far from over. Antikythera still holds many secrets in its watery ruins, and the archaeologists plan to return in the spring to uncover more of those mysteries, Foley said.
“We have some large boulders to remove in order to access the bronze sculptures that are surely beneath them. And we have a lot of sediment to excavate, so we can expose, document and recover the goods that were in the ship’s cargo hold,” he said.
The site covers a lot of ground, measuring approximately 164 square feet (50 square meters) at ocean depths ranging from 131 to 184 feet (40 m to 56 m), Foley said. The team has scanned much of the area with metal detectors, and the researchers have mapped the surrounding area of 34,449 square feet (10,500 square m) using sonar. But to date, they have opened only 10 test trenches, just two of which have been excavated.