Posts Tagged ‘great basin museum’

Beryllium mount for gyroscope

Beryllium mount for Trident missile gyroscope

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.

Gyroscope for Saturn V

Gyroscope platform for Saturn V rocket

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.

Beryllium copper alloy

Beryllium copper alloy

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.

Beryl crystals and bertrandite nodules

Beryl crystals and bertrandite/fluorite nodules

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.

Red beryl crystals

Red beryl crystals from the Wah Wah Mts.

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.

Bertrandite ore

Bertrandite ore

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).

Delta concentration plant

Delta beryllium concentration plant

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.

Elmore Ohio plant

Brush Wellman plant in Elmore, Ohio

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.

Beryllium deposits

Bertrandite deposits in Spor Mts.

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.

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Panoramic photo of the Book Cliffs, Utah

Panoramic photo of the Book Cliffs, Utah

It’s been a couple of week since I was able to do my last post. I’ve been ill for about 3 1/2 weeks and finally began to recover last week. As mentioned before, I had an unfortunate encounter with a kidney stone at the end of September which had to be removed surgically. I was just getting over that when I came down with the worst case of influenza I’ve had in many years. I don’t think it was swine flu because I didn’t develop respiratory problems, but I had everything else that the flu can give you and had chills and fever for five straight days and was flat on my back for six. Although I wanted to eat, nothing would stay with me, and I’ve dropped about 15 pounds or so since this whole ordeal began. I could certainly stand to lose it, so there’s a silver lining for you.

The Green RIver in Green River, Utah

Anyway, I don’t mean to whine. I’m just glad to be vertical again. I got back on my feet (mostly) in time to travel to Green River, Utah last Wednesday to present at the annual Utah Museums Association conference. My intent was to describe how podcasting can be useful for museums and to drum up some interest in partnerships for The Elements Unearthed project. I was pretty successful in making some initial contacts; one museum, located in Monticello, Utah, is in the middle of the uranium mining boom area of eastern Utah during the 1950s-1960s. In addition to many mines in the area, there was a processing plant and tailings pile in the town that has left a legacy of much higher than normal cancer rates. The museum would help set up interviews with families of victims and others who grew up around the tailings, as well as help tell the history of the boom years. We’d coordinate the videotaping with the local school. Although final details need to be arranged, this is exactly one of the projects I was hoping to do. I also made some contacts with museum staff from Vernal, Utah and we talked about telling the history of the gilsonite and phosphate mines near there, as well as the natural gas and oil shale in the area.

Other contacts were to help with a virtual reality 3D display of the Topaz Internment Camp as part of the proposed new Great Basin Museum to be built in Delta, my hometown. The display would allow visitors to pick a barrack in the camp and the display would then zoom in to a 3D model of that barrack and tell the stories of the people that lived there. The person that I talked to about this was actually my high school English teacher, Jane Beckwith. I still remember how hard she had to work to get me to read anything besides science fiction. Somehow reading some old moldy book by the Bronte sisters didn’t appeal to me much then (or much now, to tell the truth) but I have come to appreciate a few more authors since those days; she certainly helped me learn to write which has paid off in all parts of my life since. I was also approached about doing some work with the Great Basin Heritage Area which includes Millard and White Pine counties in Utah and Nevada. WHite Pine County is especially full of mining history. I’ve already done much work on Millard County for the SURWEB project. The State of Utah Resources Web (SURWEB) was set up to document the history, culture, geography, etc. of Utah by having people take photos and add text that could be turned into slide shows by teachers. It was set up in the late 1990s and the programming for the site is now obsolete; the site is currently down but will hopefully be upgraded soon. For my part, I documented Millard and Juab Counties with photos, text, diagrams, illustrations, and 3D models. I then set up a series of Media Show slide shows for teachers, then created similar illustrations and models for the other 27 counties of Utah. It was, in many ways, the precursor to Elements Unearthed; I’ll even use some of the same illustrations and photos. The best part of it was just getting out on the west desert of Utah with my two oldest children and visiting interesting historical and geological areas, such as Crystal Ball Cave near Gandy.


Ute Indian petroglyph/pictogram panel, Sego Canyon

On the final day of the conference I went on a tour of Sego Canyon, an excellent site for Native American petroglyphs and pictograms. The pictograms were in Barrier Canyon style, dating back at least 2000 years. The petroglyphs were in Fremont and Ute styles. We also visited the old coal mining site of Sego Canyon and took photos of the ruins. Here are some photos of Sego Canyon. The painted rock art (pictograms) are most often of a reddish brown color, although if you look at the Barrier Canyon photo you can see a bluish-green figure on the far right. These colors were made from hematite and probably malachite or azurite combined with some sort of binder (we still aren’t sure what), perhaps egg white or blood. Somehow this ancient paint has lasted longer than the modern paint used by restoration efforts. I hope to do an episode on the chemistry of pictograms and petroglyphs and talk about such things as ancient paints and desert varnish.

Fremont style panel, <1250 A.D.

Fremont petroglyph panel prior to 1250 A.D.

I am now moving into a very active phase of this project as I start writing the NSF grant, which I plan on submitting by Nov. 15. I need to gain some more partnerships and develop an advisory board and a more complete evaluation plan. Even if I do all that needs to be done and write a perfect grant, my chances are about 1 in 10. But I’ve won out with worse odds than that, and the pay off would make this project happen once and for all; I would have the budget to work on this full time rather than doing video work for clients as I am now to pay the mortgage. Wish me luck!


Barrier Canyon style pictographs, Sego Canyon


Sego Canyon general store

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