The metallic element aluminum is the third most plentiful element in the earth’s crust, comprising 8% of the planet’s soil and rocks (oxygen and silicon make up 47% and 28%, respectively). In nature, aluminum is found only in chemical compounds with other elements such as sulphur, silicon, and oxygen. Pure, metallic aluminum can be economically produced only from aluminum oxide ore.
Metallic aluminum has many properties that make it useful in a wide range of applications. It is lightweight, strong, nonmagnetic, and nontoxic. It conducts heat and electricity and reflects heat and light. It is strong but easily workable, and it retains its strength under extreme cold without becoming brittle. The surface of aluminum quickly oxidizes to form an invisible barrier to corrosion. Furthermore, aluminum can easily and economically be recycled into new products.
Aluminum compounds have proven useful for thousands of years. Around 5000 B.C., Persian potters made their strongest vessels from clay that contained aluminum oxide. Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians used aluminum compounds in fabric dyes, cosmetics, and medicines. However, it was not until the early nineteenth century that aluminum was identified as an element and isolated as a pure metal. The difficulty of extracting aluminum from its natural compounds kept the metal rare for many years; half a century after its discovery, it was still as rare and valuable as silver.
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