From the top of the Empire State Building to the air frames of the most fearsome and fastest jets on the planet, aluminum has proven over-and-over again that it is one of the strongest and durable building materials on the planet.
Aluminum is everywhere. The non-ferrous metal is in planes, buses, cars, and trucks. It's used in skyscrapers and window frames. It's used by NASA and the military to handle extreme altitudes and velocities.
Good grief, it even helps make your child's baseball bat "PING!" and your Coke can "fizz!" But why is aluminum so useful? We'll break down some of the metal's characteristics and where it came from in the following post.
A Brief History
Aluminum, or as the British call it "aluminum," is a relatively recent discovery. It does not occur naturally but is refined from bauxite. What would become known as aluminum was theorized many years before the refining process was developed by French chemist Henri-Etienne Sainte -Claire Develli in 1856.
Yet, the true fathers of today's aluminum are widely considered to be Paul Heroult, Charles Hall, and Karl Joseph Bayer. The three scientists, working independently, are responsible for the refinement and modern industrial methods to produce aluminum in the last days and early years of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The production method to make aluminum requires a lot of power to complete. For this reason, aluminum smelters are still situated near large power-producing damns.
One of the first of these is at New York's Niagara Falls, owned by the Aluminum Company of America, better known as Alcoa.
Durable and Lightweight
Among all of aluminum's properties, the one that put it on the map, arguably, is its extreme lightweight compared to other building materials. At a third of the weight of steel, it was the metal that the Orville and Wilbur Wright used to make their revolutionary piston engine that powered their Flyer-1 at Kitty Hawk ... we all know how that turned out.
Aluminum's lightweight, durable nature makes the metal perfect for all sorts of vehicles. In cars, it increases fuel efficiency while maintaining safety. It's in probes for NASA, including the Space Shuttle and Orion spacecraft, and makes up the majority of the F-16 fighter jet's air frame.
Aluminum is so durable that it can take the brunt of a great white shark bite! The metal is used in shark cages because it's buoyant and resists the corrosive nature of saltwater.
Flexible and Strong
Aluminum wire is so strong that it can hold a loaded tractor-trailer up in mid-air. The secret to aluminum's strength is in its unique chemical compositions. By mixing aluminum with other elements — like silicon, copper, and zinc — the strength of aluminum is increased. Also, manufacturing techniques that use extremes, like heat-treating or cold-working, can strengthen the material at its core.The 7,000 series of aluminum can handle pressures up to 72,000 pounds per square inch, making it one of the strongest types of this alloy.
This strength is coupled with flexibility. The metal is not brittle and easily rolled into sheets and pressed into a number of forms, including cookware (one of aluminum's early popular uses), cans, flashing and siding.
Aluminum Is Corrosive Resistant
Let's face it, you're probably not making shark cages. But that doesn't mean that aluminum's corrosive resistant qualities won't be a major influence on your next construction project.
Aluminum naturally generates a thin, anti-corrosion coating or protective barrier. This barrier protects the metal from corrosion and oxidation. So aluminum sheds rainwater, saltwater, and other corrosive materials that eat away at similar metals. Aluminum's natural anti-corrosion attributes can be further strengthened with painting and other protection methods.
Thermal efficient and fire-resistant
If you think that the transmission lines overhead are made from copper, you'd be wrong. They are aluminum. The metal is an excellent conductor of electricity and heat and coupled with its other properties (lightweight, durable, corrosion-resistant, makes aluminum perfect for transmission lines.
Aluminum is also used to transfer the heat of an electrical device (LED lights, motherboards) into a liquid coolant. This is a heat sink.
These heat sinks are a common feature of a wide variety of electrical products and one of the heat-reducing uses of aluminum. The metal proves to also reduce the cost or air-conditioning in industrial settings, especially as a siding or in a variety of framing.
In that same vein, aluminum is considered a metal that won't burn. It will melt (at around 1,221 degrees) but it will not burn, making it one of the best fire-resistant construction materials around.
Despite the ups and downs in the recycling industry, aluminum is one of the few construction materials that are 100% recyclable and one of the most valuable.
According to The Aluminum Association, "window frames, wire, tubing and electronics" all can be recycled at "the end of life."
That means that some "75 percent of all aluminum products in the U.S. are still in use today."
Literally, the recycling of aluminum products represents hundreds of millions of dollars in the U.S. and billions around the world. Nothing else compares.
As stated earlier, refining raw aluminum takes a lot of costly energy. Using recycle aluminum to manufacture projects can save up to 90 percent of that energy.
Aluminum framing can bear extreme weight while assuming almost any form. The spire of the Empire State Building is made of aluminum and the metal helps support the massive panes of glass in skyscrapers and modern office buildings around the world.
Also in the Empire State Building, its original steel frames were replaced with aluminum to increase thermal efficiency. It's no wonder that coupled with aluminum's durability and flexibility, the metal is a go-to for major construction projects around the world.
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