Friday, February 20, 2015

Element of the Month: Alumin(i)um!

February's Element of the Month:

Aluminum! Or Aluminium!

Atomic Mass: 26.9815385 amu
Melting Point: 660.32 °C
Boiling Point: 2470 °C

When I was in second grade, my friend Randy and I found some metal pipes outside his grandfather's home that we could lift with surprising ease, and so we did what any sensible boys would do: began fencing. Unfortunately, and much to our astonishment, the pipes began to bend and twist before either of us was able to seriously injure the other. And so it was that I learned some important life lessons about aluminum: it's remarkably lightweight, it has nothing of steel's strength and stiffness, and if you choose to weaponize it, Randy's grandpa won't exactly approve, but won't exactly give a damn, either. That's why we played more at his house than my house.

Aluminum's lightness made it important for a long time in the construction of building-sized tubes that could be sent soaring through the skies on jets to get people and cargo from one airport to another. Obviously the "bend and twist" thing was an issue, but that's what alloying with all of those other metallic elements is for. Nowadays, we pretty much avoid the issue and go straight to fancy plastic laminates. But Aluminum is still considered pretty useful stuff for a million other purposes.

It is of course delightful that it is a slightly different word in International (Aluminium) and North American (Aluminum) English. I didn't know about the archaic "alumium," but now that I do I miss it.

The Centerfold!

You might be surprised by how common Aluminum is here on Earth. It is, in fact, the third most common Element up here on the crust, trailing only Oxygen and Silicon. As a proportion of the mass in the universe, Aluminum is almost nothing, but it's exactly the right kind of mass to be heavy enough to end up on a rocky planet but light enough to float to the surface. So here we are, surrounded by the stuff. Oddly, considering its ubiquity in our home environment, it has no apparent biological role whatsoever. None! This is the best evidence I've seen that human beings evolved on another, aluminum-free planet and were brought to Earth by some mysterious force in the distant past, not that I've been looking for it.

The extremely brainy German Friedrich Wöhler is credited with the co-discovery of Beryllium and Silicon, the isolation of Yttrium, Beryllium, and Titanium, and, in 1827, the discovery of Aluminum. That's a hell of a resume. It's surprising how late in the game Aluminum came along, and after the 1820s it remained extremely rare and valuable, more valuable than Gold for instance, for several decades. It wasn't until the Hall-Héroult electrolytic process came along in the 1880s that Aluminum could be produced at a very large scale, and so cheaply enough that tubes of it could eventually be left lying around for me and the neighbor kid to beat on each other with.

A tree artistically woven out of Aluminum wire, which
may be by sculptor Kevin Iris, who certainly makes trees
from Aluminum wire.  But the source was a little
NOT A KEVIS IRIS TREE!  See first comment, below.


Unknown said...

That is a messy imitation of one of my trees.
Kevin Iris

Michael5000 said...

Noted! Here's a handy embedded link to Mr. Iris's site. His alumin(i)um trees really are quite something!