George Maniere: Beryllium, Even Sexier than it Sounds

InvestingAdvicebyGeorge – The young Marine sniper lays motionless in a shallow bed of sand and broken rock on the mountainside in Afghanistan. The sun blazes down, and he’s sweating. He’s spent the morning scanning a valley for Taliban fighters who keep a low profile in their maze of spider holes.

After a while, another Marine – the spotter – says, “I’ve got him. He’s just next to the tree, to the left of that stone house.”

The sniper stares down through the optics of his rifle. Yes, indeed. The image is perfect from over 1,000 meters away. There’s a very shallow footprint in the dirt, and next to it is a telltale cigarette butt. This Taliban has just smoked his last one.

The sniper turns a small knob on the gun sight. The image holds steady. There’s no vibration at all. THE Marine has a clear view, his eyeballs on target, and a confirmed bad guy. He is given his order – fire at will. He squeezes the trigger, and… Wham! One terrorist has been eliminated. 

Later that day, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flies over the site of the morning’s activities. The pilot is a long way away in a “cockpit” in Nevada, USA, where he’s linked by satellite communications to the battlefield.

In a routine maneuver, the pilot sets the UAV in a circling pattern. The aircraft is so high up that no one on the ground even knows that it’s there. The pilot slews a camera on the bottom of the UAV, down toward that stone house. The image is crystal clear. It’s like the pilot is looking out of a plate glass window next door.

Down below, the pilot sees about a dozen Taliban assembling and wiring bombs. He wonders to himself, “Why are they still there, next to that house? Didn’t they learn anything when their buddy got shot this morning? Oh, well. Those bombs they’re building will soon find their way to sites along roads in the nearby valley. We need to do something, and do it now.”

The UAV pilot, assisted by a backup team of observers in Nevada and Afghanistan quickly alerts the chain of command. There’s a well-drilled procedure in this circumstance. Signals flash between orbiting satellites, linking people in Nevada with a command center near Kandahar.

Numerous sets of eyeballs review the imagery. There’s no doubt on this one. Heck, you can positively identify some of the Taliban men based on facial features. There’s simply no vibration in the camera on the UAV. It’s a positive ID – enough to satisfy even the staff of flinty lawyers who look over every shoulder these days.

The order is given, “Take them out, authorization granted, all weapons clear.”

The pilot in Nevada has by now positioned the UAV into a firing position. He makes his attack run. With numerous witnesses in attendance, the UAV pilot hits a red button on the control stick. He feels nothing, but half a world away, a rocket motor ignites inside a Hellfire missile. The weapon slides effortlessly off a lightweight rail, accelerates like greased lightning and moves down out of the sky, toward the aim point.

The missile moves so fast, in fact, that it strikes the ground before its sound reaches the eardrums of any of the Taliban fighters. When it hits, there’s a sudden flash and a blast wave moving at over 25,000 feet per second engulfs the area. Within a few thousandths of a second, several of the bombs that the Taliban were building cook off as secondary explosions.

The operational commander requests that a nearby Navy aircraft, an F/A-18F Super Hornet, fly over the site. She needs an independent battle damage assessment to determine if a follow-up strike is necessary.

Within a few moments, there’s the crackling sound of powerful jet engines above the mountains. A haze-gray aircraft takes its vector from the air controllers and moves toward the target scene. The flight officer in the back seat of the Super Hornet slews a camera that’s part of an imagery pod hanging from one of the wings.

The gimbal system of the imagery pod tracks down to the exact global position on the ground where the missile hit. There’s no vibration in the camera, none at all. Again, a crystal-clear image transmits from the aircraft and bounces off a series of satellites and back to command centers across Afghanistan, to ships at sea and to Nevada.

The imagery indicates that the first strike by the Hellfire missile did the job, with the secondary explosions delivering any necessary coup de grace. The final decision for the battlefield commander is whether or not to send in a team of Special Forces to pick up the pieces.

The fictional story I just recounted is based on the facts of modern warfare. These kinds of things happen out on the modern battlefield.

How is it that things work so well in a complex battle space? Why doesn’t that gun sight vibrate? Why do those UAV cameras work so nicely? Why does that missile rail shoot so straight? And what about those satellite systems that bounce the signals between Afghanistan and Nevada?

The short answer is rare earths. The longer answer is a specific rare earth known as beryllium, the magic metal. Beryllium is a silvery white metal, No. 4 on the periodic table of elements. Beryllium is one of the lowest-density metals there is. It is very lightweight. Yet beryllium has six times the specific stiffness of steel. Here are some more impressive points about beryllium: beryllium resists oxidation, even at high temperatures, beryllium has a high melting point, beryllium holds its mechanical properties up to extremely high temperatures and at the same time, you can freeze beryllium to incredibly low temperatures and maintain its strength and stiffness. Beryllium has high thermal conductivity, plus the highest specific heat of any metal.

Beryllium has what is called superior thermal diffusivity, so it radiates heat away. It has superb acoustic damping characteristics and it has the highest X-ray transparency of any metal material.

So what does all this mean? It means that beryllium has an incredible combination of properties that occur in no other metal and it means that some very smart people have figured out how to use beryllium in all sorts of applications.

Beryllium goes into satellites and space structures, aircraft, optical systems, semiconductors, medical imaging and nuclear systems. And as the story up top demonstrates, there’s beryllium in gun sights, rocket launch rails, camera systems and more. When designers have to come up with products that work at the extreme edges of performance, from the dirt of a mountainside sniper position to the depths of outer space,  they specify beryllium.

The robust and growing demand for beryllium has been hampered by the cut in exports from China. In the article that I wrote yesterday, August 30th 2011, I cited that China has cut its exports of these rare earths by up to 50%. Beryllium is but one example.  There are 17 others with names like lanthanum, dysprosium, praseodymium, ytterbium and neodymium to name a few.  The point of my essay is that we need rare earth projects which will free the world from the stranglehold that the Chinese who have put on our ability to not only to defend our nation but continue to innovate to create a better life for all mankind.

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