Student Educational Resources

Quick Read

Aluminum is the most common metal found within the earth’s crust (8 percent) but does not occur as a metal in its natural state. Aluminum ore (bauxite) must first be mined then chemically refined through the Bayer process to produce an intermediate product, aluminum oxide (alumina). Alumina is then refined through the Hall–Héroult process into the pure metal by an electrolytic process. Aluminum is 100 percent recyclable without loss of its properties. Aluminum’s physical properties make the metal light in weight, strong, noncorrosive, nonsparking, nonmagnetic, nontoxic and noncombustible.

Cool Facts

  • Once, more precious than gold and silver
    Before the discovery of the Bayer and Hall–Héroult processes, aluminum was more expensive than gold or silver. Napoleon III served state dinners on aluminum plates.
  • Aluminum helped pioneer flight
    The Wright brothers used aluminum to build key parts of their biplane’s engine because no manufacturer could provide an engine light enough with the needed horsepower.
  • The lifespan of an aluminum can
    A can recycled today can be back in the marketplace in 60 days. Unopened aluminum cans are very strong, despite being so thin. Four six-packs of cans are able to support the weight of a 2-ton vehicle!
  • Recycling efforts can be improved
    Every three months, Americans throw away enough scrap aluminum to rebuild the entire U.S. commercial airplane fleet. Recycling that metal would save the energy equivalent of 16 million barrels of oil.

The Science of Metal 13

Aluminum: Element 13. Atomic weight: 26.9827

Aluminum has 13 electrons and protons in orbit around its nucleus. This metal belongs to the boron group and is known for its strength and light weight. The metal is nonmagnetic and resists oxidation (rusting). Aluminum is difficult to ignite yet has a high energy density. Aluminum oxide was used as the primary fuel for the space shuttles’ solid rocket boosters. Aluminum reflects 92 percent of visible light as well as UV light. The powder form of aluminum is a common ingredient in suntan lotion. Because it is highly conductive yet lightweight, aluminum is used to produce a majority of the wiring for the country’s electrical transmission networks.

Cool Science Project Ideas

Aluminum as a thermal insulator

Compare how long aluminum keeps an object cold versus other materials. Aluminum cans versus steel cans is a good place to start.

Aluminum as an electrical conductor

Compare the electrical conductance of aluminum wire versus cooper wire.

Hydrodynamics (buoyancy/Archimedes principle) 

What is the average diameter at which an aluminum sphere (foil ball) sinks (or floats)?

Electricity

Make aluminum foil jump like popcorn using static electricity from a balloon.

Metal properties

Compare the properties/facts and test different metals. Comparison of oxidation rates (rusting) between aluminum, iron and steel is a solid starting point.

Electrophorus-induction charging using a Leyden Jar

A Leyden Jar is an early form of capacitor consisting of a glass jar with layers of metal foil on the outside and inside.

Schools and Recycling

Aluminum can be recycled continuously with no loss of its qualities. Recycling saves 95 percent of the production of energy needed to create the metal through smelting processes. Discarding a can wastes as much energy as powering a laptop computer for 11 hours, or a television for 4 hours. The aluminum industry pays more than $800 million for recycled material, and every minute an average of 113,000 aluminum cans are recycled. School programs for recycling can make an environmental difference and create funds for programs. Get one started!

Careers

Engineering and manufacturing careers

Aluminum is used in hundreds of industries, especially in the fields of transportation, aerospace, packaging, building and construction. The industry directly creates more than 155,000 jobs and is adding more yearly. 

International business

Aluminum production is a global industry. Bauxite ore is mined in locations such as Australia, China and Africa. Alumina plants operate across the world, including in Russia and Eastern Europe. Aluminum products are produced and shipped globally. The international aluminum industry creates careers in finance, operations, IT and management around the world.

Science and research

Aluminum is on the cutting edge of technology. Science and research careers sparkle with opportunity. Research is under way to produce an aluminum-air battery projected to run an electric car for 1,000 miles. Nanoparticle research is predicted to create breakthroughs in solar energy cell and nano-circuitry design. NASA’s new Orion spacecraft will use an aluminum alloy to form its primary structure, and transparent aluminum is advancing military armor protection.

Aluminum Can Be Fun Stuff

Aluminum powder is commonly used to make fireworks. Solid rocket boosters, including the engines on the space shuttle and model rockets, use aluminum as their primary fuel. Etch-A-Sketches use aluminum powder on the back side of their screens. Glitter and liquid-metal paint are made using aluminum pigments.

75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today.

Infinitely recyclable and highly durable, 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today. Aluminum is 100 percent recyclable and retains its properties indefinitely. Aluminum is one of the only materials in the consumer disposal stream that more than pays for the cost of its own collection.

News

June 10, 2014
Explosive Growth Expected for Aluminum-Bodied Cars and Trucks; Reaching 18 Percent Within a Decade
April 9, 2014
Aluminum Offers Smallest Total Carbon Footprint Among Competing Materials