Despite being the third most common element on the planet, the use of aluminium has been relatively short lived. This is because unlike iron, for example, aluminium is rarely found in a usable or natural state, and is very difficult to extract from other elements once they have bonded together.

In fact aluminium can be found in over 270 minerals in rocks or soil, purely as a result of its high reactivity to the oxygen that can be found in the air and in the ground. The most common source of aluminium is an aluminium ore called Bauxite, which sits fairly close to the earth’s surface. Before being converted into aluminium it is processed into a midway point that is neither bauxite nor aluminium, called alumina.

Alumina is a white powder, finer than table salt, and is made by grinding the bauxite and mixing it with lime (a type of calcium) and lye (a corrosive alkali) before placing it into high-pressure containers and heating the mixture up. Alumina is also known as Aluminium Oxide, because of the level of oxygen that is involved in its make-up; roughly 3 parts of oxygen, 2 parts aluminium.

Aluminium oxide can be used in this state, and does not have to complete the transition to aluminium to have useful applications:

  • Insulation- good resistance toward acids (inert)
  • Manufacturing- low reactivity and high boiling point
  • Electronics- used in resistors and capacitors due to its electrical conductivity.

Alumina is also one of the hardest known compounds which, as a result of its size and fine composition, makes it excel in situations when an abrasive material is required. Alumina has its uses, but for the most part it is just a stop-gap before it is subjected to another process called electrolysis, which completes its transformation into aluminium by stripping away the oxygen.

In its pure form aluminium is a soft and durable metal with a silvery hue and good electrical and thermal conductivity. Additionally, when exposed to air a thin film of aluminium oxide forms around it, giving it a resistance to corrosive effects. These characteristics, along with several others, combine to make a material that is effectively 100% recyclable.

The reason aluminium is considered a young material is because it was completely unusable until the 1820’s, despite scientists knowing that the material existed over 150 years earlier. They knew this because aluminium belongs to a group of compounds called Alums, and when alumina was discovered as a component of aluminous soil in the 1500s, they knew that aluminium had to exist.

Aluminium was finally created in 1825 by a German scientist but the means by which to make it were inefficient and costly. It would be another 30 years before a more effective method was discovered. Electrolysis, the process that is used now, was not able to successfully create aluminium until close to the start of the 1900s, though scientists had been trying to use it for almost 100 years.

Fun Facts:

  • The most common element on the planet is oxygen and the second is silicon (not to be confused with thermosetting plastic, silicone).
  • Aluminium is the most Abundant metal, followed by iron, magnesium, titanium and manganese.
  • Aluminium was originally named alumium by the British Chemist Sir Humphrey Davy, who then changed it to aluminum before settling on aluminium 5 years later.
  • From 1828 until 1925, The American Chemical Society spelt it aluminium, but Webster’s dictionary spelt it as aluminum, so both spellings and pronunciations were regularly used side by side for almost 100 years. A shift occurred however and the ACS changed their spelling in 1925.
  • The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry officially standardised its spelling and pronunciation as aluminium.

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