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Beryllium: enjoying a renaissance

The metal was widely used in early nuclear weapons as a neutron generator and is used in a similar function today in nuclear reactors as a neutron moderator and reflector, bouncing scattered neutrons back into the core.
Beryllium: enjoying a renaissance

China's recent move to cut supplies of rare earth metals has put a spotlight on the importance of rare metals in modern society. Beryllium is a rare metal with unique properties that is enjoying a renaissance; its lightweight, strength, rigidity, high melting point, efficient heat conduction, resistance to corrosion, and lack of ionizing radiation (including x-ray) absorbance, is spurring a growing number of applications for the metal.

With an atomic number of 4, it is the second lightest metal, heavier only than lithium. Beryllium crystals, colored by slight impurities form the gemstones aquamarine and emerald. The metal was widely used in early nuclear weapons as a neutron generator and is used in a similar function today in nuclear reactors as a neutron moderator and reflector, bouncing scattered neutrons back into the core.

It is commonly used as alloys of copper or aluminum, imparting high strength and low warp even at high temperatures. Beryllium's high strength to weight ratio makes it an ideal for use in aerospace structural materials, where reducing weight is a constant goal. It is now found in electronics and solar cells. Ceramics made from beryllium have a multitude of uses including heat sinks due to its superb heat conducting ability. Beryllium is being used in mirrors for new space telescopes because it contracts and deforms less than glass at extreme temperatures, allowing astronomers to see farther than ever before. In a report in Nature published on February 23, physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) used two beryllium atoms to demonstrate the feasibility of a quantum computer.

Impressive as the metal is, it is still a niche commodity- only about 620 metric tons of material are estimated to have been used in 2010, although that is nearly double the 2005 level. Beryllium prices have increased as well from $128/pound in 2006 to $230/pound in 2010. New research by Vancouver based IBC Advanced Alloys in collaboration with Purdue University and Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) has the potential to significantly increase demand for beryllium.

In a study that began in 2008, the researchers have developed a method to improve the performance of uranium fuel for nuclear reactors through the addition of beryllium oxide. Modern reactors use pellets of uranium dioxide containing mostly uranium-238, enriched with 3-5% uranium-235- the isotope that reacts to generate energy. The pellets are contained in long tubes called fuel rods. Although highly stable, fuel pellets can suffer from premature cracking and degradation, requiring replacements before all the fuel can be consumed. This is due to the poor heat conductance of uranium, causing high temperature differences between a pellets core and its surface.

Researchers sought to improve the heat conductivity of uranium fuel pellets through the addition of various materials. Beryllium turned out to be the perfect material with its very high heat conductivity and low reactivity to uranium dioxide, even at temperatures up to 21,000 degrees Celsius. A co-sintering method was developed to produce the new beryllium enhanced fuel, forming pellets of uranium oxide interlaced with beryllium, which acts to transfer heat from a pellet’s center to its surface. However, work still ongoing to develop methods for industrial scale manufacturing of the new fuel.

Experiments have shown this new, beryllium impregnated material is able to increase heat conduction by 50%, a considerable amount, efficiently cooling the center of the fuel pellet, lowering the temperature differences between the surface and the core. This is sufficient to increase the life of each fuel rod, resulting in greater efficiency and less waste. In extreme cases, the greater heat conductivity may help prevent the proverbial “meltdown” by maintaining lower temperatures at the rod center as it heats up during use.

This novel fuel is still in the developmental stage. Results so far are very promising, but it has yet to be tested under irradiation. IBC is now looking for industry partners to conduct these critical tests. Results are likely a couple years away, but if positive, will give a huge boost to beryllium demand. Consider that while about 50,000 tons of uranium was produced in 2009 alone, known worldwide beryllium reserves as estimated by the USGS are only around 80,000 tons.

Until recently, much of the beryllium supply had come from selling down of Cold-War era nuclear stockpiles, although it is now considered a strategic material by the US Department of Defense. In a turnaround, the US has built its own beryllium production facility in collaboration with the country’s largest beryllium producer, Brush Wellman, with a capacity of 150,000 pounds per year that was just completed in 2010. Two-thirds of that output will go to the defense department.

Unlike rare earth metals, which are mainly produced in China, about 90% of mined beryllium comes from the US, according to the USGS. The US is also home to 65% of worldwide deposits, with the Gold Hill and Spor Mountain areas in Utah and the Seward Peninsula area in Alaska accounting for most of the total. About one-quarter of US consumption is imported from Kazakhstan, the largest source of beryllium outside the United States.

Due to its small market there are relatively few players in the field. Besides Brush Wellman, IBC (CVE:IB) may be the only other fully integrated beryllium producer in North America. BE Resources (CVE:BER), a beryllium focused exploration company is evaluating a property just 50 miles from its headquarters in New Mexico; it at the exploration stage.

Beryllium demand looks to continue rising, driven by continuing growth in applications, new market penetration, and now, government stockpiling.

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