If you close your eyes and imagine a structure made of metal, what is it? A car, an airplane, or maybe a bat? Whatever you saw, there’s a good chance that it’s made of aluminum, whether you realize it or not.
Present but Impure
Aluminum is the most abundant metal on Earth; despite that, it doesn’t occur in its isolated metallic form at all in nature. Instead, its compounds are present in almost every rock, plant, and living creature on the planet, but it must go through an isolation process to become the aluminum metal with which you are probably familiar.
This material makes up about 8% of the outermost 10 miles of the Earth’s crust. Only Oxygen and Silicon are present in a higher percentage than Aluminum in this area. In its isolated form, Aluminum is a silvery-white metal that is quite malleable. In fact, it is the sixth most malleable metal overall.
Despite being present in both plants and animals, Aluminum has no known biological function. Quite the contrary in fact, as some studies have linked Aluminum accumulation in the body with Alzheimers, although this remains unproven.
Isolated At Last
Sir Humphry Davy had electrolyzed aluminum oxide in 1809, creating an aluminum-iron alloy that he named aluminum at the time.
However, the element wasn’t actually isolated for another 15 years or so when a Danish physicist named Hans Christian Oersted completed the task by reducing aluminum chloride through the use of potassium amalgam. At that point, Aluminum was adopted as the name of the solitary element.
The word is derived from a Latin term that means bitter salt. In reality, ancient Egyptians were using Aluminum compounds as medicine, dyes, and cosmetics thousands of years before anyone could have guessed that pure Aluminum was actually a metal in its purest form.
It took another 60 years after the first isolation before scientists realized that Aluminum could be created through electrolytic reduction (and therefore could be produced relatively inexpensively); after that point, Aluminum popularity skyrocketed, and has maintained a high level.
Now, Aluminum can be extracted from Aluminum Oxide, which is present in Bauxite near the surface of the Earth with relative ease and not too much expense.
Plenty of Combinations
Given the fact that Aluminum does not occur isolated in nature but is still such a massively popular material for all sorts of manufacturing, you probably have already guessed that it is present in all sorts of compounds with other members of the periodic table.
Some of these compounds include pairings with Carbon, Potassium, Hydrogen, and Oxygen, among many others. This means that Aluminum can be found in all sorts of unexpected places, like gemstones including sapphires and rubies, as well as more usual suspects, like igneous rocks.
Being that it is both light and strong, Aluminum and its alloys are a popular choice for the frames of vehicles like cars and airplanes. More obviously, Aluminum is a common choice for packaging, as it is available both as cans and foil which allows you to store food safely.
Since it resists corrosion, some Aluminum is utilized for construction purposes, like as framing for a building, or as a roofing material. Basically, Aluminum isn’t just the most abundant metal on Earth, it is probably also the most versatile.
In all likelihood, you come into contact with something made of aluminum at least once every single day. That’s not a bad popularity surge for an element that not only doesn’t occur isolated in nature, but also has no known biological function.