Made to measure…Beryllium

Who are you?: Dr Christopher Mallinson
What is your role?: Post-Doctoral Research Fellow
What is your work about?: Studying the role of second phase particles in the corrosion of beryllium.

I beg your pardon?: During my PhD and postdoc work at the University of Surrey, I investigated how small particles with different compositions affect the corrosion of beryllium. Beryllium is a metal with some impressive properties that means it finds use in the nuclear industry. Corrosion associated with the small particles can decrease the lifetime of a part substantially as it is “localised”. This means that it occurs in a few spots very fast instead of everywhere slowly.

Why?: A lot of work has been performed on beryllium using experimental techniques that “average out” the corrosion process to an entire sample. This could be larger than 1 cm2 when as can be seen from Figure 1, the actual corrosion process appears to start at small particles ~1/10th the width of a human hair. This means that the effect of individual particle types cannot be determined.

Be corrosion

Figure 1: A series of images showing the development of corrosion between a particle and beryllium

And?: In order to study these processes that occur over such small length scales I made use of a specialist instrument available at the university, an Auger electron microscope. This enables the elements present at the surface of a sample to be determined from points as small as 1/10,000 the width of a human hair! Easily enough to study what is happening around the small particles.

So what?: If we can more fully understand the processes occurring at these particles in beryllium we may be able to predict the rate at which the metal corrodes and why it corrodes. This might help us to determine how long a particular part will take to fail and will help to develop methods that can minimise the possibility for corrosion.

Final Thought: During my research I noticed a number of effects that, while initially small, turned out to be particularly important. It is these small things that must be remembered and not ignored as they can lead to big discoveries.