Aluminum Seeing a Resurgence as Car Makers Look to Lighten the Load

Ford F-150 Pickup Truck (Photo by Bull-Doser via Wikimedia Commons)
Ford F-150 Pickup Truck (Photo by Bull-Doser via Wikimedia Commons)

Aluminum is one of the most commonly used household metals, with foil covering leftovers in refrigerators worldwide.

But not the lightweight metal is increasingly being used for other applications, including replacing steel in cars, trucks, and even airplanes.

Shedding Unwanted Pounds

Part of the reason for the increased popularity in aluminum has to do with the environment. Tougher new emissions standards in Europe and the US have forced car and truck makers to find new ways to make the same vehicles with far less weight.

In 2014, the auto industry took a new look at aluminum after the Ford Motor Company started using the lightweight metal in the body panels for its popular F-150 pickup trucks. Now aluminum is widely used in cars, trucks, airliner fuselages, and other applications worldwide.

A Man-Made Metal

While aluminum is found on the periodic table of the elements (Al), unlike other elemental metals it is not mined directly from the earth. Instead, it is made from an ore known as bauxite, which is mainly found in sub-tropical environments in places like Australia, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, although during World War II bauxite was mined in Arkansas.

Aluminum used in industry and for home use is created by separating the aluminum oxide from the iron oxide in bauxite. This process — which was first developed in 188 by the Austrian chemist Karl Joseph Bayer and is known as the Bayer process — involves mixing bauxite with caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) then heating it under pressure.

The sodium hydroxide dissolves the aluminum oxide, forming sodium aluminate, which eventually precipitates, coming out of the solution as a fine white powder called alumina. ┬áThis 19th Century process is still used today to produce nearly all the world’s aluminum.

Uses for Aluminum

One of the biggest benefits of aluminum is its light weight. It also can be flattened to a very thin layer that is just a few molecules thick. Aluminum is also very inexpensive to mine and produce, especially when compared to other metals.

With auto makers and other manufacturers challenged to produce lighter and less expensive products, steelmakers are constantly producing stronger and lighter steels that incorporate new materials like magnesium and carbon fiber.

Yet aluminum continues to be widely used in the production of auto parts, as well as cans, foils, kitchen utensils, and even rocket parts. And while it doesn’t conduct electricity as well as copper, it is widely used in electrical transmission lines because of its light weight.