Thursday, April 5, 2012


Interview With an Element: Alumin(i)um

First off, AL-ew-MIN-ee-əm or ə-LOO-mi-nəm ?

Honestly, I have no preference. I am Aluminium to the English, Americans seem to prefer the old-fashioned Aluminum. In any case, many consider me Australian at heart. You can call me Al!

Al, are metals defined or refined?

You can’t take the valence electrons out of it, because you start off with a certain electron configuration, so in a sense it is definition. But you can learn a lot from other metals’ successes and mistakes, and I think you need a combination of both. Let’s be clear: I am proud of my humble origins. I, for one, do not want membership in the elitist club of transition metals. Who else can claim to be called a metal with so few core electrons?

Who got where I am now without d-orbitals? I mean, really, who would be interested in interviewing Boron?

You made yourself into a global brand, can you offer any insights to elements wanting to follow your footsteps?

At the very beginning of my commercial career I aimed for the luxury market, despite just being voted “Metal Most Likely To End Up In Humanity’s Armpit." Yes, being an antiperspirant and dye mordant is not the most noble of jobs. But it's not that I think I'm too good for it, like some other metals.

My first real break came with marketing my elemental form. I was much admired at the Paris Exposition in 1855, and valued above gold. I could have taken the path of platinum, but chose quantity over quality.

Today, every human owns, on average, over 170 pounds of me. An admirable achievement, but then it leads to me being taken for granted. Even my cousin Titanium has a more successful career in the precious metals market.

In hindsight, would you have done things differently?

I believe I became a victim of my own success. While only communist countries used me as currency, I tell myself that not every metal makes it to the mint. At 8%, by weight, of the earth’s crust, I am indeed the most common element.

And don’t ever forget that my metallic form comes at a price. Lack of cheap electricity would make me a luxury once again, and no longer a modern convenience affordable by everyone.

As for my high-end investments with Oxygen, I could have advertised my involvement with Corundum Inc. better. Not too many are aware that without me there would be no rubies or sapphires. Carbon gets all the credit for diamonds, but me?

Who is your role-model?

That would be Iron. I admire a metal that became mythical and left its mark on history and biology, without being called precious. I wish I could inspire as much awe; I do not even rust. I am confident our current days of miracle and wonder will be one day be referred to as the Aluminum Age. I am the true metal of the future: think race cars!

Lasers! Aeroplanes! Processed Cheese! Modern life without me is unimaginable.

Was there a time in your life when you had a business idea that didn’t work out?

There was that debacle with neurotoxic dialysis equipment. The jury is still out on my connection to Alzheimer’s disease, and let me assure you, so far it’s only hints and allegations.

Many claim that large-scale production of you is harmful.

Of course there were incidents and accidents. The Bauxite refining that's required to supply the world with me produces large amounts of caustic sludge, and improper storage unfortunately caused flooding in a town in Hungary a few years ago. The area flooded was vastly overstated, though. My lawyers would also like me to point out that my involvement was, at most, indirect.

How do you think will your brand image develop?

There are many things I would like to explore. There is so much more this light metal can do. A single interview cannot do me justice. The latest discovery of transparent Aluminum is most exciting. I sure would love to do my part in saving the whales.

Previously: Chlorine.

Simone Bauer has a doctorate in chemistry, was born and raised in (West) Berlin, lived for the last eight years in NYC, and just moved to Cambridge, MA.

Image by concept w, via Shutterstock

48 Comments / Post A Comment


I've been waiting for another one of these! Au-some!


Aluminium...one of my FAVS!!!!@n

one cow.

More like Bore-on. <3 u, Aluminumie!


I can call you Betty, and Betty when you call me you can call me Al, call me Al!

I had to.


Al is quite charming for someone(thing) with a bit of an ego. Perhaps because I read it in my head with an Australian accent?


Transparent aluminum?! I thought that only existed on Star Trek! So cool! (Unless it can give me Alzheimers? Hm.)


Loved the subtle lyrics! (We were just belting that one out on our mad dash cross country.) And Al? feel free to call me Betty. ;-)


What I learned about aluminum on an interminable trip across the midwest, in an RV, with my parents, in December: The capitol dome in Des Moines, Iowa is plated in aluminum, which was considered more precious than gold at the time, but then they came up with a better way to refine it? Or apply it to domes? And it became commonplace, and the dome is kind of a joke.

I have not verified this independently.

Marquise de Morville

@noReally Before Hall and Héroult discovered how to produce aluminum by electrolysis 125 years ago it was made by other methods using more expensive reagents. I think the Wsahington Monument also has an aluminum apex - two years before aluminum prices dropped.

conniving little shit

I thought aluminium was the "old-fashioned" way to say aluminum because of British scientists thinking that everything should end in -ium and changing it so it's more ~classical~

Marquise de Morville

@conniving little shit I thought that initially, too. Alumium came first, then Aluminum, then Aluminium.

"1812, coined by English chemist Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829), from L. alumen "alum" (see alum). Davy originally called it alumium (1808), then amended this to aluminum, which remains the U.S. word, but British editors in 1812 further amended it to aluminium, the modern preferred British form, to better harmonize with other element names (sodium, potassium, etc." Online Etymology Dictionary


Hints and allegations! Incidents and accidents!

Wonderful :D


@katiethegreat The days of miracle and wonder!

fondue with cheddar

@highfivesforall All these song lyric references leave me spinning in infinity!


@jen325 Sadly for aluminum, it is not a part of that loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires.


@all Don't...I know y'all from the cinematographer's party?

fondue with cheddar

@wee_ramekin Hm...I'm not sure, but who am I to blow against the wind?


@jen325 I know what I know, okay?

fondue with cheddar

@wee_ramekin It's okay, I sang what you said.


@dieAuflaufformchen @all Hmmm maybe you know me, but... we come and we go...

fondue with cheddar

@PistolPackinMama True, but it is a thing that I keep in the back of my head.


Aluminum to me-e-e, Aluminium to some...


@@serenityfound I forgot what a great song that is! Kind of slanders poor Aluminum, but the harmonies, yum.


Meep meep meep!

(Or, as a fellow chemist, these are my favorite posts).


I just want to say that I, for one, would be interested in interviewing Boron. No offense, Al! I just love these.


Did anyone else fall in love with aluminum because of the Klutz book "Earthsearch"? That book was the shit. I will never forget the picture of researchers sniffing their test subjects' armpits.

Michaela D@twitter

@tuttlium Wasn't the cover aluminum? That book was indeed the shit.

Marquise de Morville

@Michaela D@twitter I will have to look that book up!


Boron's chemistry is fascinating, though!


@Jenn@twitter I'm really not a fan of elements who don't think that they have to follow the (octet) rules.

What makes boron so special? Huh? HUH?

(Sorry, just raging because I have a chemistry test on Monday...)

Marquise de Morville

@wee_ramekin Hope your test went well! I was a GenChem TA for many semesters and I agree octet rules would indeed make everything easier, but also a bit boring? Don't blame Boron, blame Lewis :-)

Cute drawings on that matter (not by me): Octet Rule Violations

Marquise de Morville

@Mwee_ramekin Sorry, just realized Monday is still coming up, well, then the link might be useful.


If Iron is your role model, WHO IS YOUR NEMESIS? I just always like to know.


@Megan Patterson@facebook I bet it's Tin.


Hi Al! Just like to say how much I respect the base metals. Keep doing what you're doing!


how did i live for so long without the hairpin in my life? first i learned how to be a girl, now i'm getting my chemistry fix...


I only just last year, at the age of (toooldtoadmitit), FINALLY learned how to pronounce aluminum without it coming out as "elemenemenem." I'm going to need a ruling on the correct pronunciation here. (please say the second one, please say the second one, please say the second one...)


@Bebe uh-LOO-mih-NUM


Love these! Can't wait to see what the next one will be!


I really, really love this series. Thanks for writing it Simone and thatnks for publishing it, The Hairpin.


@Saskquatch Seconded! This series is great!

Jenny Reiswig@twitter

Al, if you're reading these comments, what is your main objection to magnetism?

Hello Kidney

Am I reading it wrong, or should "How do you think will your brand image develop?" instead read "How do you thing your brand image will develop?"

Also, I'd love to hear more about Al's connection to processed cheese!

Marquise de Morville

@Hello Kidney Processed cheese is often made with sodium aluminum phosphate(E541) as emulsifier and in addition to its use as baking powder source of most of the aluminum consumed by humans.

As for the thing/think I am not quite sure what you meant?


I was curious about whether or not it's annoying when people refer to "tin" foil, when it's actually made from aluminum? Because, clearly, it annoys me.


"I mean, really, who would be interested in interviewing Boron?"

Too right.

fondue with cheddar

@wee_ramekin I don't know, it's got a bad rap because of it's name. It doesn't occur in pure form naturally on Earth and is only produced by cosmic ray spallation. That sounds pretty interesting to me!

Marquise de Morville

It makes me happy to read to read how many commenters speak up in defense of Boron and did not fall for Aluminum's slander.

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