Aluminium is remarkable for its ability to resist corrosion (due to the phenomenon of passivation) and its low density. Structural components made from aluminium and its alloys are vital to the aerospace industry and very important in other areas of transportation and building. Its reactive nature makes it useful as a catalyst or additive in chemical mixtures, including being used in ammonium nitrate explosives to enhance blast power.
Corrosion resistance can be excellent due to a thin surface layer of aluminium oxide that forms when the metal is exposed to air, effectively preventing further oxidation. The strongest aluminium alloys are less corrosion resistant due to galvanic reactions with alloyed copper. This corrosion resistance is also often greatly reduced when many aqueous salts are present however, particularly in the presence of dissimilar metals.
Aluminium is one of the few metals that retain full silvery reflectance in finely powdered form, making it an important component of silver paints. Aluminium mirror finish has the highest reflectance of any metal in the 200–400 nm (UV) and the 3000–10000 nm (far IR) regions, while in the 400–700 nm visible range it is slightly outdone by tin and silver and in the 700–3000 (near IR) by silver, gold, and copper.
Aluminium is a good thermal and electrical conductor, by weight better than copper. Aluminium is capable of being a superconductor, with a superconducting critical temperature of 1.2 kelvin and a critical magnetic field of about 100 gauss.
Although aluminium is an extremely common and widespread element, the common aluminium minerals are not economic sources of the metal. Almost all metallic aluminium is produced from the ore bauxite. Bauxite occurs as a weathering product of low iron and silica bedrock in tropical climatic conditions.
Aluminium is a strongly reactive metal that forms a high-energy chemical bond with oxygen. Compared to most other metals, it is difficult to extract from ore, such as bauxite, due to the energy required to reduce aluminium oxide (Al2O3). For example, direct reduction with carbon, as is used to produce iron, is not chemically possible, since aluminium is a stronger reducing agent than carbon. Aluminium oxide has a melting point of about 2,000 °C. Therefore, it must be extracted by electrolysis. In this process, the aluminium oxide is dissolved in molten cryolite and then reduced to the pure metal. The operational temperature of the reduction cells is around 950 to 980 °C. Cryolite is found as a mineral in Greenland, but in industrial use it has been replaced by a synthetic substance. Cryolite is a chemical compound of aluminium, sodium, and calcium fluorides: (Na3AlF6). The aluminium oxide (a white powder) is obtained by refining bauxite in the Bayer process of Karl Bayer. (Previously, the Deville process was the predominant refining technology.)
The electrolytic process replaced the Wöhler process, which involved the reduction of anhydrous aluminium chloride with potassium. Both of the electrodes used in the electrolysis of aluminium oxide are carbon. Once the refined alumina is dissolved in the electrolyte, its ions are free to move around. The reaction at the cathode (negative electrode) is
Here the aluminium ion is being reduced (electrons are added). The aluminium metal then sinks to the bottom and is tapped off.
At the anode (positive electrode), oxygen is formed:
This carbon anode is then oxidized by the oxygen, releasing carbon dioxide.
Unlike the anodes, the cathodes are not oxidized because there is no oxygen present, as the carbon cathodes are protected by the liquid aluminium inside the cells. Nevertheless, cathodes do erode, mainly due to electrochemical processes and metal movement. After five to ten years, depending on the current used in the electrolysis, a cell has to be rebuilt because of cathode wear.
Aluminium electrolysis with the Hall-Héroult process consumes a lot of energy, but alternative processes were always found to be less viable economically and/or ecologically. The worldwide average specific energy consumption is approximately 15±0.5 kilowatt-hours per kilogram of aluminium produced (52 to 56 MJ/kg). The most modern smelters achieve approximately 12.8 kW·h/kg (46.1 MJ/kg). (Compare this to the heat of reaction, 31 MJ/kg, and the Gibbs free energy of reaction, 29 MJ/kg.) Reduction line currents for older technologies are typically 100 to 200 kA; state-of-the-art smelters operate at about 350 kA. Trials have been reported with 500 kA cells.
Recovery of the metal via recycling has become an important facet of the aluminium industry. Recycling involves melting the scrap, a process that requires only five percent of the energy used to produce aluminium from ore. However, a significant part (up to 15% of input material) is lost as dross (ash-like oxide). Recycling was a low-profile activity until the late 1960s, when the growing use of aluminium beverage cans brought it to the public consciousness.
Electric power represents about 20% to 40% of the cost of producing aluminium, depending on the location of the smelter. Smelters tend to be situated where electric power is both plentiful and inexpensive, such as South Africa, the South Island of New Zealand, Australia, the People's Republic of China, the Middle East, Russia, Quebec and British Columbia in Canada, and Iceland.
In 2005, the People's Republic of China was the top producer of aluminium with almost one-fifth world share, followed by Russia, Canada, and USA, reports the British Geological Survey.
Over the last 50 years, Australia has become a major producer of bauxite ore and a major producer and exporter of alumina. Australia produced 62 million tonnes of bauxite in 2005. The Australian deposits have some refining problems, some being high in silica but have the advantage of being shallow and relatively easy to mine.
Aluminium halides usually exist in the form AlX3. e.g. AlF3, AlCl3, AlBr3, AlI3 etc.
Aluminium is the most widely used non-ferrous metal. Global production of aluminium in 2005 was 31.9 million tonnes. It exceeded that of any other metal except iron (837.5 million tonnes). Relatively pure aluminium is encountered only when corrosion resistance and/or workability is more important than strength or hardness. A thin layer of aluminium can be deposited onto a flat surface by physical vapor deposition or (very infrequently) chemical vapor deposition or other chemical means to form optical coatings and mirrors. When so deposited, a fresh, pure aluminium film serves as a good reflector (approximately 92%) of visible light and an excellent reflector (as much as 98%) of medium and far infrared.
Pure aluminium has a low tensile strength, but when combined with thermo-mechanical processing, aluminium alloys display a marked improvement in mechanical properties, especially when tempered. Aluminium alloys form vital components of aircraft and rockets as a result of their high strength-to-weight ratio. Aluminium readily forms alloys with many elements such as copper, zinc, magnesium, manganese and silicon (e.g., duralumin). Today, almost all bulk metal materials that are referred to loosely as "aluminium," are actually alloys. For example, the common aluminium foils are alloys of 92% to 99% aluminium.
Some of the many uses for aluminium metal are in:
Aluminium alloys with a wide range of properties are used in engineering structures. Alloy systems are classified by a number system (ANSI) or by names indicating their main alloying constituents (DIN and ISO).
The strength and durability of aluminium alloys vary widely, not only as a result of the components of the specific alloy, but also as a result of heat treatments and manufacturing processes. A lack of knowledge of these aspects has from time to time led to improperly designed structures and gained aluminium a bad reputation. (See main article)
One important structural limitation of aluminium alloys is their fatigue strength. Unlike steels, aluminium alloys have no well-defined fatigue limit, meaning that fatigue failure will eventually occur under even very small cyclic loadings. This implies that engineers must assess these loads and design for a fixed life rather than an infinite life.
Another important property of aluminium alloys is their sensitivity to heat. Workshop procedures involving heating are complicated by the fact that aluminium, unlike steel, will melt without first glowing red. Forming operations where a blow torch is used therefore requires some expertise, since no visual signs reveal how close the material is to melting. Aluminium alloys, like all structural alloys, also are subject to internal stresses following heating operations such as welding and casting. The problem with aluminium alloys in this regard is their low melting point, which make them more susceptible to distortions from thermally induced stress relief. Controlled stress relief can be done during manufacturing by heat-treating the parts in an oven, followed by gradual cooling -- in effect annealing the stresses.
The low melting point of aluminium alloys has not precluded their use in rocketry; even for use in constructing combustion chambers where gases can reach 3500 K. The Agena upper stage engine used a regeneratively cooled aluminium design for some parts of the nozzle, including the thermally critical throat region.
Compared to copper, aluminium has about 65% of the electrical conductivity by volume, although 200% by weight. Traditionally copper is used as household wiring material. In the 1960s aluminium was considerably cheaper than copper, and so was introduced for household electrical wiring in the United States, even though many fixtures had not been designed to accept aluminium wire. However, in some cases the greater coefficient of thermal expansion of aluminium causes the wire to expand and contract relative to the dissimilar metal screw connection, eventually loosening the connection. Also, pure aluminium has a tendency to creep under steady sustained pressure (to a greater degree as the temperature rises), again loosening the connection. Finally, Galvanic corrosion from the dissimilar metals increased the electrical resistance of the connection.
All of this resulted in overheated and loose connections, and this in turn resulted in fires. Builders then became wary of using the wire, and many jurisdictions outlawed its use in very small sizes in new construction. Eventually, newer fixtures were introduced with connections designed to avoid loosening and overheating. At first they were marked "Al/Cu", but they now bear a "CO/ALR" coding. In older assemblies, workers forestall the heating problem using a properly-done crimp of the aluminium wire to a short "pigtail" of copper wire. Today, new alloys, designs, and methods are used for aluminium wiring in combination with aluminium terminations.
Ancient Greeks and Romans used aluminium salts as dyeing mordants and as astringents for dressing wounds; alum is still used as a styptic. In 1761 Guyton de Morveau suggested calling the base alum alumine. In 1808, Humphry Davy identified the existence of a metal base of alum, which he at first termed alumium and later aluminum (see Etymology section, below).
Friedrich Wöhler is generally credited with isolating aluminium (Latin alumen, alum) in 1827 by mixing anhydrous aluminium chloride with potassium. As the metal had first been produced two years earlier (in an impure form) by Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Ørsted, Ørsted can also be listed as its discoverer. Further, Pierre Berthier discovered aluminium in bauxite ore and successfully extracted it. Frenchman Henri Etienne Sainte-Claire Deville improved Wöhler's method in 1846, and described his improvements in a book in 1859, chief among these being the substitution of sodium for the considerably more expensive potassium.
(Note: The title of Deville's book is "De l'aluminium, ses propriétés, sa fabrication" (Paris, 1859). Deville likely also conceived the idea of the electrolysis of aluminium oxide dissolved in cryolite; however, Charles Martin Hall and Paul Héroult might have developed the more practical process after Deville.)
Before the Hall-Héroult process was developed, aluminium was exceedingly difficult to extract from its various ores. This made pure aluminium more valuable than gold. Bars of aluminium were exhibited alongside the French crown jewels at the Exposition Universelle of 1855, and Napoleon III was said to have reserved a set of aluminium dinner plates for his most honoured guests.
Aluminium was selected as the material to be used for the apex of the Washington Monument in 1884, a time when one ounce (30 grams) cost the daily wage of a common worker on the project; aluminium was about the same value as silver.
The Cowles companies supplied aluminium alloy in quantity in the United States and England using smelters like the furnace of Carl Wilhelm Siemens by 1886. Charles Martin Hall of Ohio in the U.S. and Paul Héroult of France independently developed the Hall-Héroult electrolytic process that made extracting aluminium from minerals cheaper and is now the principal method used worldwide. The Hall-Heroult process cannot produce Super Purity Aluminium directly. Hall's process, in 1888 with the financial backing of Alfred E. Hunt, started the Pittsburgh Reduction Company today known as Alcoa. Héroult's process was in production by 1889 in Switzerland at Aluminium Industrie, now Alcan, and at British Aluminium, now Luxfer Group and Alcoa, by 1896 in Scotland.
Many navies use an aluminium superstructure for their vessels, however, the 1975 fire aboard USS Belknap that gutted her aluminium superstructure, as well as observation of battle damage to British ships during the Falklands War, led to many navies switching to all steel superstructures. The Arleigh Burke class was the first such U.S. ship, being constructed entirely of steel.
In April 2008 the price of aluminium was around $1.35/lb.
By 1812, Davy had settled on aluminum. He wrote in the journal Chemical Philosophy: "As yet Aluminum has not been obtained in a perfectly free state. But the same year, an anonymous contributor to the Quarterly Review, a British political-literary journal, objected to aluminum and proposed the name aluminium, "for so we shall take the liberty of writing the word, in preference to aluminum, which has a less classical sound.
The -ium suffix had the advantage of conforming to the precedent set in other newly discovered elements of the time: potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, and strontium (all of which Davy had isolated himself). Nevertheless, -um spellings for elements were not unknown at the time, as for example platinum, known to Europeans since the sixteenth century, molybdenum, discovered in 1778, and tantalum, discovered in 1802.
Americans adopted -ium to fit the standard form of the periodic table of elements, for most of the nineteenth century, with aluminium appearing in Webster's Dictionary of 1828. In 1892, however, Charles Martin Hall used the -um spelling in an advertising handbill for his new electrolytic method of producing the metal, despite his constant use of the -ium spelling in all the patents he filed between 1886 and 1903. It has consequently been suggested that the spelling reflects an easier to pronounce word with one fewer syllable, or that the spelling on the flier was a mistake. Hall's domination of production of the metal ensured that the spelling aluminum became the standard in North America; the Webster Unabridged Dictionary of 1913, though, continued to use the -ium version.
In 1926, the American Chemical Society officially decided to use aluminum in its publications; American dictionaries typically label the spelling aluminium as a British variant.
The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) adopted aluminium as the standard international name for the element in 1990, but three years later recognized aluminum as an acceptable variant. Hence their periodic table includes both, but places aluminium first. IUPAC officially prefers the use of aluminium in its internal publications, although several IUPAC publications use the spelling aluminum.
The toxicity of aluminium can be traced to increased deposition in bone and the central nervous system, particularly in the presence of reduced renal function. Because aluminium competes with calcium for absorption, increased amounts of dietary aluminium may contribute to the reduced skeletal mineralization (osteopenia) observed in preterm infants and infants with growth retardation. Full-term infants with normal renal function do not seem to be at substantial risk from aluminium toxicity from soy protein-based formulas. Aluminium can cause neurotoxicity in very high doses which can alter the function of the blood-brain barrier. It is one of the few abundant elements that have no known function in living cells. A small percentage of people are allergic to it — they experience contact dermatitis: an itchy rash from using styptic or antiperspirant products, digestive disorders and inability to absorb nutrients from eating food cooked in aluminium pans, and vomiting and other symptoms of poisoning from ingesting such products as Amphojel, and Maalox (antacids). Such allergies are extremely rare though, in other people aluminium is not considered as toxic as heavy metals, but there is evidence of some toxicity if it is consumed in excessive amounts. The use of aluminium cookware, popular because of its corrosion resistance and good heat conduction, has not been shown to lead to aluminium toxicity in general. Excessive consumption of antacids containing aluminium compounds and excessive use of aluminium-containing antiperspirants are more likely causes of toxicity. Also, studies have shown that consumption of citric acid with aluminium significantly increases aluminium absorption, and maltol has been shown to increase the accumulation of aluminium in nervous and osseus tissue (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8445293). Furthermore, aluminium increases estrogen-related gene expression in human breast cancer cells grown in the laboratory. These salts' estrogen-like effects have led to their classification as a metalloestrogen.
It has been suggested that aluminium is a cause of Alzheimer's disease, as some brain plaques have been found to contain the metal. Research in this area has been inconclusive; aluminium accumulation may be a consequence of the Alzheimer's damage, not the cause. In any event, if there is any toxicity of aluminium it must be via a very specific mechanism, since total human exposure to the element in the form of naturally occurring clay in soil and dust is enormously large over a lifetime.
Mercury applied to the surface of an aluminium alloy can damage the protective oxide surface film by forming a Mercury-aluminium amalgam. This may cause further corrosion and weakening of the structure. For this reason, mercury thermometers are not allowed on many airliners, as aluminium is used in many aircraft structures.
A mixture of powdered aluminium and Fe2O3 is known as thermite, and burns with a high energy output to form Fe and Al2O3. Thermite can be produced inadvertently during grinding operations, but the high ignition temperature makes incidents unlikely in most workshop environments.
Wheat's adaptation to allow aluminium tolerance is such that the aluminium induces a release of organic compounds that bind to the harmful aluminium cations. Sorghum is believed to have the same tolerance mechanism. The first gene for aluminium tolerance has been identified in wheat. A group in the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that sorghum's aluminium tolerance is controlled by a single gene, as for wheat. This is not the case in all plants.