This will seem to be a sudden diversion after my last post on Periodic Tables, but I am working on several video episodes at the same time and these posts will be jumping between topics depending on where I am with each one. This last Tuesday I had the opportunity to visit my home town of Deseret, Utah with several distant Black cousins on a genealogy trip, and we stopped at the Great Basin Museum in Delta to look up some old ledgers. While I was there, I took the opportunity to photograph their exhibit on the refining and uses of beryllium. It might seem strange that the best exhibit on beryllium isn’t in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. but is instead in a small, local museum in Delta, Utah. However, the only commercial source of beryllium ore (bertrandite) is located in the Spor Mts. of western Utah and partially refined at the Brush Engineered Materials concentration plant near Delta. I took a group of students to the plant in Dec., 2007 and videotaped Phil Sabey describing the refining process and history of the plant. He also took us on an excellent tour of the plant. My students did much of the initial editing of the footage that year, but I haven’t put the finishing touches on it yet because I needed more photos of how beryllium is used. This exhibit had exactly what I needed, and I can finally finish the beryllium episodes.
Beryllium has unique properties that make it ideally suited for many aerospace applications. It is a very hard, tough metal but also extremely lightweight: a 36 pound piece of steel would only weigh about 8 pounds if made from beryllium. When you hold a piece of it, you’d swear it was actually plastic. Because of this, it has been used for guidance and gyroscope systems in many missiles, including the Saturn V rockets that lifted the Apollo astronauts to the moon. Here is a photo of a gyroscope platform used for the Saturn V: this one has a flaw and therefore wasn’t used in the Apollo program and was donated to the museum. It reminds me of the scene in the movie “Galaxy Quest” where TIm Allen and his crew of actors have to land on a planet to retrieve a beryllium sphere to replace the cracked one in their engine room (the scene, incidentally, was filmed at Goblin Valley in Utah). So this gyroscope platform is a true beryllium sphere . . . .
Beryllium is also transparent to X-rays and therefore ideal for use in X-ray tubes, and it is a neutron absorber and therefore useful in nuclear applications. In addition, beryllium copper alloy resists corrosion while being an excellent conductor of electricity and is used for electrical contacts and connectors where extremes of temperature and high corrosion can be expected, such as in the automatic windows of many car doors.
It is being used as housings for laser repeaters for transoceanic fiber optic cables where the lasers are used to amplify the optical signal. One of the most recent uses has been for the mirrors in the James Webb Space Telescope – its high reflectivity and light weight make beryllium use ideal.
Beryllium is refined from two commercial minerals. Traditionally, it was concentrated from beryl crystals that were crushed and melted. The Delta plant has one feed stream that does that, and they are currently using up the strategic stockpile of beryl crystals which were purchased from the U.S. government. Beryl is actually an impure form of emerald; one could isolate beryllium from emerald or red beryl, too, but it wouldn’t be exactly cost effective. The beryl crystals on display in the Great Basin Museum come mostly from small family mines in South America and show the usual hexagonal crystal structure. The red beryl is much more rare and comes from a mine in the Wah Wah Mts. near Milford, Utah.
The other feed stream at the Delta plant concentrates the bertrandite ore, which is a hydrous beryllium aluminum silicate with traces of uranium and other elements. In the Spor Mts., it is found as a highly weathered pinkish clay material with frequent nodules of fluorite and some beautiful purple fluorite geodes as seen here.
All of this is crushed, separated with sufluric acid, and an organic floculent is added to float the beryllium particles to the top in a series of flotation tanks (seen to the upper left in this aerial shot).
The beryllium concentrate is then pumped off the top of the tanks, the floculent agent is stripped, and the beryllium passed through several chemical processes to concentrate it into beryllium hydroxide pellets, which must be handled in an airtight system since at this point beryllium becomes very toxic. The pellets are shipped to Elmore, Ohio for final refining into beryllium metal, beryllium alloys, and beryllia ceramic products. I stopped at Elmore on my way to Philadelphia this summer and took this photo of the Elmore plant.
Because of its highly weathered nature, the bertrandite can’t be mined except through open pits. The Blue Chalk and Roadside deposits, as shown on this map, are currently being mined; there are enough deposits to provide beryllium for anticipated needs for at least the next 20 years. To aid in the mining and to lessen the amount of overburden that must be removed, the deposits are carefully drilled and mapped out in 3D.
I am working on completing two video episodes on beryllium mining and concentration by mid-January and post them to iTunes (finally!). These photos complete all the materials I’ve been collecting, so now all it needs is final editing. Along with the beryllium episodes, I’ll post two on the Periodic Table, one each on the history of glass blowing and stained glass, and the full video of the rationale for this project (I posted that in two parts to this blog several weeks ago). My goal is to post episodes once each month through June. They will include episodes on Greek matter theories, alchemy and technology in the Middle Ages, zinc mining in New Jersey, anthracite coal mining in Pennsylvania, lead mining in Missouri, petroleum mining and refining in Pennsylvania and Kansas, and salt mining in Kansas. These are all mine sites that I visited on my way back from Philadelphia. I have the video and photos, but it’s the editing that takes time. I’m also working on four projects for clients – as expected, everything heated up after New Years. I would love to have enough grant funding to work on The Elements Unearthed full time, but, alas, I must make a living and so this project can only be done here and there as I have time between client projects.
My thanks go to Phil Sabey of Brush Engineered Materials for our interview and tour back in 2007 and to Roger Anderson of the Great Basin Museum for helping me photograph the exhibit.