In awe of aluminium
Aluminium has proved to be an ally to the transport industry with its lightweight yet strong, durable, corrosion-resistant, highly conductive and aesthetically pleasing characteristics. JACO DE KLERK takes a look at this wonder element.
Applications for aluminium are truly only limited by one’s imagination. Frank Busenbecker, commercial managing director of Erbslöh Aluminium in Germany, explains in an interview conducted by Aluminium 2014 Blog: “When it comes to combining design components with functional parts requirements, aluminium material is plainly the ideal solution. Thus, the material is used for semi-finished profiles in nearly all industrial areas.”
He adds that aluminium makes a key contribution to fuel-efficient engines, and is also an indispensable element of the design of premium vehicles. “Further, by reducing vehicles’ weight, it cuts down on fuel consumption and emissions, without compromising size or safety.”
However, despite its unique properties and qualities – aluminium still has to compete with other metals. “Aluminium is still a young and modern metal,” Busenbecker explains. “It has only been in production, on an industrial scale, since 1886 – when Hall and Héroult independently discovered how to produce aluminium through electrolysis.”
This process involves dissolving alumina (aluminium oxide) in molten cryolite (a white or colourless mineral) and electrolysing the molten salt bath to obtain pure aluminium metal. The American chemist, Charles Hall, and the Frenchman, Paul Héroult, invented this process almost simultaneously.
“In 1900, annual output of aluminium was 1 000 tonnes,” Busenbecker points out. “By the end of the twentieth century annual production had reached 32 million tonnes, comprising 24 million tonnes of primary aluminium and eight million tonnes from recycled metal. This makes aluminium the world’s second most-used metal, with the upward trend continuing.”
So, the aluminium industry is proving to be very competitive when compared to other metals, ranking second only to iron. “The manufacturers of vehicles and their suppliers are seeking to reduce the environmental impact caused by transport,” says Busenbecker. “The aluminium industry helps to meet this challenge with its light weight and contribution to improved performance and safety.”
According to Lourens Potgieter from Alutip, a leading manufacturer of aluminium tipper and load bodies for the South African truck transport market, there is no doubt that the enforcement of road traffic laws regarding overloading is posing increased challenges for transport and logistics companies to find ways to optimise every load being transported. “The escalation of input costs, especially the increase in fuel prices, has re-enforced the drive to optimise the payload of every kilometre being travelled.”
So the use of aluminium holds great benefits for the transport industry, but the resources of bauxites (the raw material containing aluminium) aren’t widespread throughout the world. There are only seven bauxite-rich areas: Western and Central Africa (mostly Guinea); South America (Brazil; Venezuela and Suriname); the Caribbean (Jamaica); Oceania and Southern Asia (Australia and India); China; the Mediterranean (Greece and Turkey) and the Urals (Russia).
The aluminium sector is the leading industry in Russia, with the country producing 15 percent of the world’s alumina and 12 percent of its aluminium. And in terms of light metal exports, it is the world leader, with 80 percent of the aluminium produced by the country’s smelters being exported.
So, it is apparent that aluminium is a high-tech metal, with new designs and equipment being based on it. And, with all major aluminium companies having research centres that invest millions of dollars annually – to reduce environmental impact, raise profitability and reduce expenses at all stages of aluminium production – new methods of production and new applications for this light-weight element are sure to follow in future.