Among structural metals, beryllium has a unique combination of properties. It has low density (two-thirds that of aluminum), high modulus per weight (five times that of ultrahigh-strength steels), high specific heat, high strength per density, excellent dimensional stability, and transparency to X-rays. Beryllium is expensive, however, and its impact strength is low compared to values for most other metals.
Available forms include block, rod, sheet, plate, foil, extrusions, and wire. Machining blanks, which are machined from large vacuum hot pressings, make up the majority of beryllium purchases. However, shapes can also be produced directly from powder by processes such as cold-press/sinter/coin, CIP/HIP, CIP/sinter, CIP/hot-press and plasma spray/sinter. (CIP is cold-isostatic press, and HIP is hot-isostatic press.) Mechanical properties depend on powder characteristics, chemistry, consolidation process, and thermal treatment. Wrought forms, produced by hot working, have high strength in the working direction, but properties are usually anisotropic.
Beryllium parts can be hot formed from cross-rolled sheet and plate as well as plate machined from hot-pressed block. Forming rates are slower than for titanium, for example, but tooling and forming costs for production items are comparable.
Structural assemblies of beryllium components can be joined by most techniques such as mechanical fasteners, rivets, adhesive bonding, brazing, and diffusion bonding. Fusion-welding processes are generally avoided because they cause excessive grain growth and reduced mechanical properties.
Beryllium behaves like other light metals when exposed to air by forming a tenacious protective oxide film that provides corrosion protection. However, the bare metal corrodes readily when exposed for prolonged periods to tap or seawater or to a corrosive environment that includes high humidity. The corrosion resistance of beryllium in both aqueous and gaseous environments can be improved by applying chemical conversion, metallic, or nonmetallic coatings. Beryllium can be electroless nickel plated, and flame or plasma sprayed.
All conventional machining operations are possible with beryllium, including EDM and ECM. However, beryllium powder is toxic if inhaled. Since airborne beryllium particles and beryllium salts present a health hazard, the metal must be machined in specially equipped facilities for safety. Machining damages the surface of beryllium parts. Strength is reduced by the formation of microcracks and "twinning." The depth of the damage can be limited during finish machining by taking several light machining cuts and sharpening cutting tools frequently or by using nonconventional metal-removal processes. For highly stressed structural parts, 0.002 to 0.004 in. should be removed from each surface by chemical etching or milling after machining. This process removes cracks and other surface damage caused by machining, thereby preventing premature failure. Precision parts should be machined with a sequence of light cuts and intermediate thermal stress reliefs to provide the greatest dimensional stability.
Beryllium typically appears in military-aircraft and space-shuttle brake systems, in missile reentry body structures, missile guidance systems, mirrors and optical systems, satellite structures, and X-ray windows. The modulus-to-density ratio is higher than that of unidirectionally reinforced, "high-modulus" boron, carbon, and graphite-fiber composites. Beryllium has an additional advantage because its modulus of elasticity is isotropic.