If you’re like many people, when you hear the word “aluminum”, you think of everyday convenience items that, while incredibly useful, don’t exactly convey a high-strength image. And it’s true – aluminum is a highly versatile metal – meaning it can be processed to be thin, lightweight, bendable and even crushable by human hands.
What’s less well-understood is that aluminum can also be some of the toughest stuff on earth. Often, the metal is used in applications where high-strength and durability are the most important considerations – from cars and trucks to building material to military vehicles. You likely trust aluminum to keep you safe and secure dozens of times a day without even knowing it.
Aluminum is about one-third the weight of steel, meaning parts can be made thicker and stronger while still reducing weight in vehicles and other applications. Depending on the alloy and processing technique used, pound for pound aluminum can be forged to be just as strong if not stronger than some steel.
Aluminum is already the second-most-used material by automakers, so your car or truck likely has a lot of aluminum in it right now, protecting you from hazards on the road. Engineers know how to work with aluminum to make parts that perform as well or better than steel parts – all while reducing vehicle weight. Aluminum is highly effective at absorbing crash energy, protecting passengers in the event of an accident. And lighter aluminum vehicles improve performance. Better handling and shorter stopping distances help drivers avoid accidents to begin with.
Aluminum is used for window frames and curtain wall in some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers – maybe even the office building you’re sitting in right now. This versatile metal is used to make planes, trains, buses, trucks – even ocean liners!
In short, every day, people around the world trust the strength of aluminum – whether they know it or not.
In addition to “everyday” applications, aluminum’s strength and durability is also trusted for some of the most extreme uses imaginable. Designers know that high-strength aluminum alloys can handle some of the harshest conditions on earth – and beyond.
The secret to aluminum’s strength comes down to chemistry. Pure aluminum is mixed with other elements to create high-strength alloys. Common additives used to increase the strength and formability of aluminum include silicon, magnesium and copper. Aluminum-zinc alloys are some of the strongest alloys available today and are commonly used by the automotive and aerospace industries.
Aluminum can be further strengthened through processing – hot rolling or cold rolling. Some alloys are made stronger by heat-treating followed by rapid cooling. This process freezes the atoms in place strengthening the final metal. Alternatively, some aluminum is “cold worked” -- usually by rolling, stretching forging or drawing -- to make it stronger. This process inhibits the movement of atoms relative to each other, strengthening the finished product.
The strongest aluminum alloys – 7000-series alloys – can reach strengths in excess of 72,000 pounds per square inch. A 1.2-inch aluminum wire made from this alloy could suspend a fully-loaded tractor-trailer in the air.