Beryllium...Even Sexier Than it Sounds

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. 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. Hey, they’re called coffin nails for more than one reason.

The sniper turns a small knob on the gun sight. The image holds steady. There’s no vibration at all. Clear view. Eyeballs on target. Confirmed bad guy. Fire at will. Squeeze the trigger, and… Wham! Round traveling downrange. Kill shot.

Later that day, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flies over the site of the morning’s activities. The pilot is faraway, 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.

“Take them out,” comes the order. “Authorization granted. 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 next decision for the battlefield commander is whether or not to send in a team of Special Forces to pick up the pieces… And so it goes.

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.

In my investment service, Energy & Scarcity Investor, I’ve been following beryllium since February 2008. That was when I recommended Brush Engineered Materials, which changed its name and stock ticker in March 2011 to Materion Corp. (NYSE:MTRN).

Here’s a bit of what I told you a couple years ago: 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.
  • It has a high melting point.
  • It holds its mechanical properties up to extremely high temperatures.
  • At the same time, you can freeze beryllium to incredibly low temperatures and maintain its strength and stiffness.
  • It 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 super-smart people have figured out how to use beryllium in all sorts of applications.

Rocket scientists use beryllium…literally…in rockets. 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 gimbal 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 inspired my recommendation of Brush-Materion three years ago. The stock took a hit in the market crash of 2008 and 2009, but has since recovered and is up nicely. Business is good, and Materion shares are holding their own. Today, Materion has a strong position within the beryllium market.

But Materion is not the only compelling beryllium play, nor is beryllium the only compelling rare earths play. I recently recommended a second beryllium play to the subscribers of Energy Scarcity and I continue to monitor the fast-moving rare earths sector very closely.

I would advise all Daily Reckoning readers to do likewise. The rare earths are one of the very few industries that possess robust long-term, growth potential, even if global economic activity continues to disappoint.


Byron King,
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning