Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 13

Lucky “13” of the elements Fearless is looking at?  Well…you be the judge.


Aluminum is a rather common metal, the most common one in the earth’s crust, as a matter of fact.  Ah, but try finding it as a metal in nature.  Probably not going to happen.  Aluminum is simply too reactive on its own.  But you can find it in more than 250 different minerals.  Despite its reactivity, it does not easily ignite.

It has a long history, its being in evidence in ancient Greece and Rome as an astringent (a “styptic” – an astringent used in treating wounds).  It would not be until the mid-18th century that Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau, a French chemist and sometime political official, looked at “alum” (which is hydrated potassium aluminum sulfate, but they didn’t know that at the time, it was just this quartzy looking stuff) and decided to call it “alumine.” 

Close…but not quite.  Sir Humphry Davy figured out that there was a metal in there and called it “alumium.”  Ooooh…almost.  Davy took another shot at it, calling the metal “aluminum,” but he didn’t get around to actually extracting the metal.  Friedrich Wöhler, a German chemist, almost did it, but he thought he had potassium.  He tweaked his experimental processes a bit, and in 1827 he isolated pure aluminum. Bet this would have gone much more quickly if Swedes were involved.

But back to aluminum.  It is a very durable element, resistant to corrosion.  It has no known function in biology, but it does lend strength to metals with which it is alloyed, making it critical in aerospace, transportation, and structural applications. In fact, it is among the most practical of elements, finding its way into any number of applications or products: packaging (cans or foil), automobiles, building construction, utilities (light poles, sign posts), protection (casings for electronic equipment and consumer products), heat sinks for electronic appliances, paints, musical instruments (generally guitars), lighting, athletic equipment, fireworks, and many more.

Oh, and here is an odd fact about aluminum.  You find that in some countries (Great Britain, for example) the element is spelled “aluminium,” with the extra “I” imparting an extra syllable in pronunciation.  There is a reason for that.  There is this organization that serves as the authority on chemical nomenclature, the “International Union of Pure and Applied Chmistry (IUPAC, for short).”  After Davy proposed “aluminum” as the name for the metal, IUPAC decided that “aluminum” needed to conform to the naming conventions for elements, that they end in “ium.”  So, “aluminum” became “aluminium,” which is its official spelling to this day.  It was the Americans, being the rebellious sort they are, that changed the name back, the American Chemical Society doing the deed back in 1925.

So, there it is.  The strange history of its name aside, a widely found element that is durable, reactive if not readily ignitable, capable of lending strength to a wide variety of metal alloys.  It is not a flashy element, but rather one found in any number of useful, everyday applications and products. It is not unlike a hockey player who is sturdy, durable, plays hard in the corners and along the boards (although seldom fights…perhaps just one career fight, in fact).  A player who is a meat-and-potatoes sort who isn’t flashy, but can contribute at both ends of the ice.

Aluminum (or “Aluminium”)… the “Joel Ward” of the elements of the periodic table.

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