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The Pros And Cons Of Aluminum In Engineering

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Perhaps no other material has revolutionized as many industries as aluminum has. Since it’s development more than a century ago, aluminum and its many alloys has transformed the way we build nearly everything, from automobiles to airplanes and everything in between. And that includes buildings, bridges, and other engineering applications.

It’s hard to list off all of the advantages that aluminum has to offer. The tremendous diversity in aluminum alloys has allowed for faster production processes that are more efficient and save money. As the production of aluminum has advanced, making it cheaper and more adaptable, it has allowed for breakthroughs that would have seemed impossible just a few years previously.

Of course, aluminum has its drawbacks as well, and we’ll look at some of the downsides to this material that might make it ill-suited for your particular project.

What Engineering Applications Have Typically Relied On Aluminum?

Before assessing the pros and cons of aluminum uses in engineering, it’s first necessary to examine the type of applications that frequently employ aluminum. Of course, there are many categories of engineering. The simple truth is that nearly every form of engineering benefits from aluminum in some form.

Aluminum use in structures and buildings can be traced all the way back to the capstone of the Washington Monument, which was finished in the 1880’s. In fact, at that time, aluminum was still considered a rare metal, as expensive as silver, and much rarer. It wasn’t until decades later that advances in the extraction and production of aluminum made it possible to be employed in engineering.

The skyscraper boom of the early 20th century was made possible, at least in part, by the advances in aluminum production. Beginning with the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building in the 1930’s, aluminum was used for many of the new towering buildings that were popping up around the world. This included window frames, interior structures, and other fixtures, such as spandrels. For the latter building, its iconic spire was made from aluminum as well.

The fact is that modern architecture would not be possible without aluminum. So many of our modern architectural feats rely on the many benefits of aluminum, including its unparalleled strength-to-weight ratio, which allows for the support of the large glass spans that are emblematic of the modern skyscraper, as well as prominently featured in public structures such as airports and train stations around the world.

Another category of engineering that relies on aluminum is electrical engineering. Aluminum wiring is a prominent feature of electrical applications. This is because while aluminum wire will need to be 1.5 times wider than copper wire to pass an equal amount of electricity, the aluminum wire will weigh half as much as the copper wire. During the 60s and 70s, as the United States expanded its power grid, aluminum wire was used in power cables almost exclusively for this reason.

Mechanical engineering is another category that relies heavily on aluminum. As machines advance and become more complicated, relying on smaller parts and necessitating lighter weight materials, engineers are turning to aluminum with greater frequency. Automated equipment, computers, mobile devices, and robotics all use aluminum due to its lightweight, formability, and mold-making ability.

What Are The Major Advantages Of Aluminum?

Probably aluminum’s most famous trait that makes it a must-have for engineers is its high strength-to-weight ratio. This is the major factor in aluminum’s popularity in the aerospace and automobile industries. But as mentioned before, it’s also crucial for engineers to be able to build the extremely large spans that are characteristic of skyscrapers and other structures.

Of course, aluminum is also famous for its excellent corrosion resistance. In particular, certain high-grade alloys provide strong protection against atmospheric corrosion, which allows aluminum to be used in many different environmental settings. When engineers are designing structures that will be exposed to the elements over the course of their lifetime, as is nearly always the case with buildings, bridges, and monuments, corrosion resistance is of primary concern. Certain aluminum grades are even appropriate for use in marine structures.

As highlighted previously, another prized property of aluminum is its high conductivity. This applies both to electrical and thermal conductivity. Unalloyed aluminum possesses about 60% the conductivity of copper, while being half as heavy, making it a viable option for engineering applications that rely on high conductivity. Its thermal conductivity makes it popular in many products and structures where heat exchange is necessitated.

Another prime advantage of aluminum is its extreme formability. Aluminum is often used for prototypes because of this reason. For engineers, they are able to take advantage by using aluminum for custom designed shapes that would be hard to replicate with other metals. Engineers who work with aluminum are able to save both time and money.

Other advantages that aluminum brings to the table include its recyclability, its ability to take surface treatments, and its durability. So while on the surface it may seem that aluminum is more expensive than other materials, over the lifetime of the production process, the savings can be substantial.

What Are Some Of The Disadvantages Of Aluminum?

First of all, although aluminum does have a great strength-to-weight ratio, when we’re just talking strength alone, stainless steel is often stronger. So for structures where weight isn’t an issue, steel might be the way to go. In addition, another drawback is that certain alloys of aluminum do not have the same level of corrosion resistance as stainless steel. That’s why, for example, aluminum is not as popular a choice for electrical cables as it used to be. When deciding on an alloy, it’s very important to know exactly what the material will be exposed to so that you know that it will be able to withstand the elements for as long as necessary.

One more disadvantage of aluminum is that it can affect the way your food tastes, which is why stainless steel is much more commonly featured in cooking applications.

Summary

No matter what your desired engineering application, Clinton Aluminum can help you pick the correct material for the job. Contact us today to speak to one of our friendly and knowledgeable service professionals.

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