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By A.J. Roan
Metal Tech News 

Critical minerals forge strong alliance

Beryllium and aluminum forge incredible lightweight alloys Metal Tech News – February 3, 2021

 

Last updated 2/2/2021 at 4:50pm

NASA beryllium aluminum alloys critical minerals James Webb Space Telescope

NASA

The primary mirror of the Webb Telescope contains 18 hexagonal segments, each 4.3 feet across, that must maintain their exact shape even at temperatures of minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The gold-plated mirrors built for this next generation telescope take advantage of beryllium traits to accomplish this task, which will allow scientists to see further into time and space than ever before.

As two of the 35 minerals and metals considered to be critical to the economic and national security of the United States, beryllium and aluminum are fundamental to many sectors for their natural properties and even more so when they join together to create beryllium-aluminum alloys.

Most, if not everyone, has heard of aluminum. As the second most abundant metallic element in the Earth's crust after silicon, its unique lightweight properties, malleability and durability have quickly made this relatively young commercial material one of the most widely used metals in virtually all segments of the world's economy.

Beryllium is less widely known and used. Being six times stiffer than steel, able to maintain its shape across a wide range of temperatures, and the highest melting point of any light metal, beryllium is unrivaled for applications that require these properties. This metal is often used in aerospace and military applications where precision is a must.

When combined, beryllium and aluminum create unique alloys that are not only extraordinarily strong but also incredibly lightweight, which makes them ideal for applications where weight reduction is highly sought.

Used in satellite production, the sensors, optical systems, rocket nozzles and more benefit from this stronger-than-steel alloy, which also happens to be X-ray transparent, non-magnetic and non-sparking.

By combining the best of both worlds, beryllium-aluminum alloys hold their shape under extreme stresses in temperature and atmospheric pressures. It is self-dampening, meaning that it minimizes vibrations, which is where the optics in aircrafts utilize this alloy to reduce "noise," to greatly increase resolution and range.

As a result, beryllium alloys allow space telescopes to deliver crisper images, and provide lightweight yet sturdy protection for rovers exploring Mars and other extraterrestrial destinations.

This is the reason why NASA used beryllium for the mirrors on the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Telescope, which is scheduled to be put into orbit about 1 million miles above Earth later this year.

Moving into the future, beryllium-aluminum have found uses in internet of things applications, as a significant component used in the manufacture of computer chips for precision electronics and communications.

As internet of things continues to develop through chip-enabled phones, laptops, tablets, thermostats, home security systems, electronic wearables, household appliances and more, demand for computer chips is sharply rising.

Because beryllium-aluminum alloy parts have high stiffness (modulus) and a low coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE), and resist vibration and high stress forces, and do not change size, shape, or fitting with extreme temperature changes, this makes it key in the manufacturing of high-precision computer chips.

Along with small microchips, beryllium-aluminum is also used primarily in military defense applications and avionics. Fighter jets, helicopters, ships and missiles rely on parts that can withstand high acceleration and centrifugal forces. Making this alloy the perfect material to support the pressures and stresses of live combat.

These alloys are also highly resistant to corrosion and oxidation, which the military requires for applications that can stand the test of time and in extremely demanding operational environments.

From aircraft carriers to the F-35 jet to computer information storage devices, beryllium-aluminum helps these applications deliver consistent performance in mission-critical situations.

Any industry that needs high-quality machined parts can benefit from beryllium-aluminum including automotive, agriculture, consumer products, food processing, oil and gas exploration, medical, robotics and even mining.

As one of the few primarily domestically sourced minerals on the United States Geological Survey's list of critical mineral commodities, beryllium has a unique position on the list. While the USGS definition does not state that America must be net import-reliant on a mineral or metal for it to be considered critical, it is the products that make it vital to national security.

With more developments toward microchips and increased space missions, the need for beryllium and the incredible alloys it contributes to are expected to grow.

 

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