A unique combination of properties makes aluminum one of our most versatile engineering and construction materials. A mere recital of its characteristics is impressive. It is light in mass, yet some of its alloys have strengths greater than that of structural steel.
It has high resistance to corrosion under the majority of service conditions, and no colored salts are formed to stain adjacent surfaces or discolor products with which it comes into contact, such as fabrics in the textile industry and solutions in chemical equipment. It has no toxic reaction. It has good electrical and thermal conductivities and high reflectivity to both heat and light. The metal can easily be worked into any form and readily accepts a wide variety of surface finishes.
The mass of aluminum is roughly 35 percent that of iron and 30 percent that of copper. Commercially pure aluminum has a tensile strength of about 90 MPa. Thus its usefulness as a structural material in this form is somewhat limited. By working the metal, as by cold rolling, its strength can be approximately doubled. Much larger increases in strength can be obtained by alloying aluminum with small percentages of one or more other elements such as manganese, silicon, copper, magnesium or zinc.
Like pure aluminum, the alloys are also made stronger by cold working. Some of the alloys are further strengthened and hardened by heat treatments so that today aluminum alloys having tensile strengths approaching 700 MPa are available.
A wide variety of mechanical characteristics, or tempers, are available in aluminum alloys through various combinations of cold work and heat treatment. In specifying the temper for any given product, the fabricating process and the amount of cold work to which it will subject the metal should be kept in mind.
Aluminum and its alloys lose part of their strength at elevated temperatures, although some alloys retain good strength at temperatures from 200 to 260°C. At subzero temperatures, however, their strength increases without loss of ductility, so aluminum is a particularly useful metal for low-temperature applications.
When aluminum surfaces are exposed to the atmosphere, a thin invisible oxide skin forms immediately, which protects the metal from further oxidation. This self-protecting characteristic gives aluminum its high resistance to corrosion. Unless exposed to some substance or condition that destroys this protective oxide coating, the metal remains fully protected against corrosion. Aluminum is highly resistant to weathering, even in industrial atmospheres that often corrode other metals. It is also corrosion resistant to many acids. Alkalis are among the few sub stances that attack the oxide skin and therefore are corrosive to aluminum.
Some alloys are less resistant to corrosion than others, particularly certain high-strength alloys. Such alloys in some forms can be effectively protected from the majority of corrosive influences, however, by cladding the exposed surface or surfaces with a thin layer of either pure aluminum or one of the more highly corrosion-resistant alloys.
A word of caution should be mentioned in connection with the corrosion-resistant characteristics of aluminum. Direct contacts with certain other metals should be avoided in the presence of an electrolyte; otherwise galvanic corrosion of the aluminum may take place in the vicinity of the contact area. Where other metals must be fastened to aluminum, the use of a bituminous paint coating or insulating tape is recommended.
The fact that aluminum is nontoxic was discovered in the early days of the industry. It is this characteristic that permits the metal to be used in cooking utensils without any harmful effect on the body, and today we find also a great deal of aluminum equipment in use by food processing industries. The same characteristic permits aluminum foil wrapping to be used safely in direct contact with food products.
Aluminum is one of the two common metals having an electrical conductivity high enough for use as an electric conductor. The conductivity of electric conductor grade (EN AW1350 EN 573-3) is about 62 ICAS.
The high thermal conductivity of aluminum came prominently into play in the very first large-scale commercial application of the metal in cooking utensils. This characteristic is important wherever the transfer of thermal energy from one medium to another is involved, either heating or cooling. Thus aluminum heat exchangers are commonly used in the food, chemical, petroleum, aircraft and other industries. Aluminum is also an excellent reflector of radiant energy through the entire range of wavelengths, from ultraviolet, through the visible spectrum to infrared and heat waves, as well as electromagnetic waves of radio and radar.
Aluminum has a light reflectivity of over 80 percent, which has led to its wide use in lighting fixtures. Aluminum roofing reflects a high percentage of the sun’s heat, so that buildings roofed with this material are cooler in summer.
The ease with which aluminum may be fabricated into any form is one of its most important assets. Often it can compete successfully with cheaper materials having a lower degree of workability. The metal can be cast by any method known to foundry men; it can be rolled to any desired thickness down to foil thinner than paper; aluminum sheet can be stamped, drawn, spun or roll-formed. The metal also may be hammered or forged. Aluminum wire, drawn from rolled rod, may be stranded into cable of any desired size and type. There is almost no limit to the different profiles in which the metal may be extruded.
The ease and speed with which aluminum may be machined is one of the important factors contributing to the low cost of finished aluminum parts. The metal may be turned, milled, bored, or machined in other manners at the maximum speeds of which the majority of machines are capable. Another advantage of its flexible machining characteristics is that aluminum rod and bar may readily be employed in the high speed manufacture of parts by automatic screw machines.
Almost any method of joining is applicable to aluminum: riveting, welding, brazing or soldering. A wide variety of mechanical aluminum fasteners simplifies the assembly of many products. Adhesive bonding of aluminum parts is widely employed, particularly in joining aircraft components.
For the majority of applications, aluminum needs no protective coating. Mechanical finishes such as polishing, sand blasting or wire brushing meet the majority of needs. In many instances, the surface finish supplied is entirely adequate without further finishing. Where the plain aluminum surface does not suffice, or where additional protection is required, any of a wide variety of surface finishes may be applied. Chemical, electrochemical and paint finishes are all used. Many colors are available in both chemical and electrochemical finishes. If paint, lacquer or enamel is used, any color possible with these finishes may be applied. Vitreous enamels have been developed for aluminum, and the metal may also be electroplated.
Aluminum sheet, because of its superior corrosion resistance and smooth continuous surface, is an excellent base for the high quality paints used in producing painted sheet. The chemical pretreatment plus the application of high quality thermally cured paint assures a finish that will exhibit no cracking, blistering, or peeling.
Attractive appearance together with high resistance to weathering and low maintenance requirements have led to extensive use in buildings of all types. High reflectivity, excellent weathering characteristics, and light weight are all important in roofing materials. Light weight contributes to low handling and shipping costs, whatever the application.
Many applications require the extreme versatility that only aluminum has. Almost daily its unique combination of properties is being put to work in new ways.