Today aircraft designers are looking for new materials that offer all the benefits of aluminum but are even lighter. The only candidate they have is carbon fiber. It consists of threads between 5 and 15 um in diameter comprising mostly carbon atoms. The first airliner with a fuselage made completely of composite materials was the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which made its maiden commercial flight in 2011.
However, aeroplanes made from composite materials cost a lot more to produce than planes made from aluminum. In addition, carbon composite materials often don’t deliver the required level of safety.
Aluminum has proved indispensable not just in aviation but also in the aerospace industry where its combination of low weight and maximum strength is even more critical. The body of the first human-built satellite launched in the USSR in 1957 was made from an aluminum alloy.
All modern spacecraft contain between 50% and 90% of aluminum alloys in their parts. Aluminum alloys are used in the body of Space Shuttle vehicles, they’re found in the telescopic antenna of the Hubble space telescope; hydrogen tanks used in rockets are made from aluminum alloys, the tips of rockets use aluminum alloys, parts of launch vehicles and orbital stations, as well as the fastening units for solar panels – all these elements are made from aluminum alloys.
Even solid fuel rocket boosters are made with aluminum. These boosters are used in the first stage of spaceflight and consist of an aluminum powder, an oxidiser such as ammonium per chlorate and a binder. For example, the world’s most powerful launch vehicle Saturn-5 (which can take 140 tonnes of cargo into orbit) burns through 36 tonnes of aluminum powder in the time it takes to reach orbit.
The key benefit of aluminum alloys used in spacecraft is their ability to withstand high and low temperatures, vibration loads and radiation. In addition, they have the property of cryogenic strengthening, which means that as the temperature falls their strength and flexibility only increase. The alloys most often used in aerospace comprise combinations of aluminum and titanium, aluminum and nickel as well as aluminum, chromium and iron.
Reprinted From UC RUSAL