Matter & Energy

Matter is composed of atoms or groups of atoms called molecules. The arrangement of particles in a material depends on the physical state of the substance. In a solid, particles form a compact structure that resists flow. Particles in a liquid have more energy than those in a solid. They can flow past one another, but they remain close. Particles in a gas have the most energy. They move rapidly and are separated from one another by relatively large distances.


Aluminum (in Canada and Europe, aluminium), symbol Al, the most abundant metallic element in the earth's crust. The atomic number of aluminum is 13; the element is in group 13 (IIIa) of the periodic table (see Periodic Law).

Hans Christian Oersted, a Danish chemist, first isolated aluminum in 1825, using a chemical process involving potassium amalgam. Between 1827 and 1845, Friedrich Wöhler, a German chemist, improved Oersted's process by using metallic potassium. He was the first to measure the specific gravity of aluminum and show its lightness. In 1854 Henri Sainte-Claire Deville, in France, obtained the metal by reducing aluminum chloride with sodium. Aided by the financial backing of Napoleon III, Deville established a large-scale experimental plant and displayed pure aluminum at the Paris Exposition of 1855.


Aluminum is a lightweight, silvery metal. The atomic weight of aluminum is 26.9815; the element melts at 660° C (1220° F), boils at 2467° C (4473° F), and has a specific gravity of 2.7. Aluminum is a strongly electropositive metal and extremely reactive. In contact with air, aluminum rapidly becomes covered with a tough, transparent layer of aluminum oxide that resists further corrosive action. For this reason, materials made of aluminum do not tarnish or rust. The metal reduces many other metallic compounds to their base metals. For example, when thermite (a mixture of powdered iron oxide and aluminum) is heated, the aluminum rapidly removes the oxygen from the iron; the heat of the reaction is sufficient to melt the iron. This phenomenon is used in the thermite process for welding iron (see Welding).

The oxide of aluminum is amphoteric—showing both acidic and basic properties. The most important compounds include the oxide, hydroxide, sulfate, and mixed sulfate compounds (see Alum). Anhydrous aluminum chloride is important in the oil and synthetic-chemical industries. Many gemstones—ruby and sapphire, for example—consist mainly of crystalline aluminum oxide.


A given volume of aluminum weighs less than one-third as much as the same volume of steel. The only lighter metals are lithium, beryllium, and magnesium. Its high strength-to-weight ratio makes aluminum useful in the construction of aircraft, railroad cars, and automobiles, and for other applications in which mobility and energy conservation are important. Because of its high heat conductivity, aluminum is used in cooking utensils and the pistons of internal-combustion engines. Aluminum has only 63 percent of the electrical conductance of copper for wire of a given size, but it weighs less than half as much. An aluminum wire of comparable conductance to a copper wire is thicker but still lighter than the copper. Weight is particularly important in long-distance, high-voltage power transmission, and aluminum conductors are now used to transmit electricity at 700,000 V or more.

The metal is becoming increasingly important architecturally, for both structural and ornamental purposes. Aluminum siding, storm windows, and foil make excellent insulators. The metal is also used as a material in low-temperature nuclear reactors because it absorbs relatively few neutrons. Aluminum becomes stronger and retains its toughness as it gets colder and is therefore used at cryogenic temperatures. Aluminum foil 0.018 cm (0.007 in) thick, now a common household convenience, protects food and other perishable items from spoilage. Because of its light weight, ease of forming, and compatibility with foods and beverages, aluminum is widely used for containers, flexible packages, and easy-to-open bottles and cans. The recycling of such containers is an increasingly important energy-conservation measure. Aluminum's resistance to corrosion in salt water also makes it useful in boat hulls and various aquatic devices.