IYPT 2019 Elements 013: Aluminium: Drinks cans and aeroplanes

The thirteenth element in our International year of the Periodic Table series is aluminium. The most abundant metal in Earth’s crust, aluminium finds use in drinks cans, aluminium foil, and aeroplane construction.

Aluminium is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, at 8.1% by mass. However, its higher reactivity compared to other metals like iron and copper makes it more of a challenge to extract. Electrolysis, where a current is passed through a molten or dissolved metal compound, has to be used. This is an energy intensive process – 5% of all of the electricity generated in the USA is used in aluminium production.

Once it’s produced, however, aluminium can be recycled over and over. It’s estimated that 75% of all aluminium ever made is still in use. Recycled drinks cans can be recycled, and the aluminium they’re made of can be back on the shelves as new drinks cans in as little as 60 days.

Aluminium can also be combined with other metals to form useful alloys. Alloys with copper, manganese, silicon and magnesium and light but strong, and find uses in aeroplane construction. The fact that planes are largely made of aluminium is the reason that you can’t take a mercury thermometer onto a plane – the mercury can form an amalgam with aluminium if it comes into contact with it, causing it to lose its structural integrity.

Aluminium has other uses as well as those shown here. It’s also used in aluminium foil, and aluminium compounds are used in anti-perspirants.

Remember, you can keep track of all of the previous entries in this series on the site here, or on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s dedicated page.