Aluminum is an abundant metallic chemical element which is widely used throughout the world for a wide range of products. Many consumers interact with some form of it on a daily basis, especially if they are active in the kitchen. The element has an atomic number of 13, and it is identified with the symbol Al on the periodic table of elements. It is classified in the poor metals, sharing the property of extreme malleability with metals like tin and lead. The international standard spelling is aluminium.
The history of this element is actually quite old. Various forms have been used for centuries; aluminum oxides, for example, appear in pottery and glazes from Ancient Egypt. The Romans also used it, in the form of a substance they called alum. In the 1800s, Hans Christian Oersted isolated an impure form of the element, and he was followed by Friedrich Wohler, who succeeded in isolating the pure form in 1827.
At first, scientists believed this metal was extremely rare and difficult to extract, and the metal was at one point highly prized. Several sculptures from the 1800s illustrate this commonly held belief. In 1886, however, an American student named C.M. Hall and a Frenchman named Paul Herout developed a process for smelting ores to extract their valuable aluminum. The Hall-Heroult method is now extensively used throughout the world to isolate the element from ores such as bauxite.
Far from being rare, aluminum is in fact the third most common element in the Earth's crust, and it is the most common metallic element on Earth. In a pure form, it is silvery white and extremely lightweight. The element blends readily to make lightweight but very strong alloys, and it conducts both heat and electricity very well. In addition, it is non-magnetic, which can be a highly useful property in some applications. The myriad uses for the metal and its compounds include auto manufacture, construction, paints, packaging, cooking utensils, antacids, antiperspirants, and astringents.
While aluminum itself is not inherently toxic, there are some risky aspects to the element. People who work around high volumes of it can become ill, especially if they inhale the element. Children appear to be susceptible to this element, especially if their kidneys do not function well. It appears that it may also cause neuromuscular and skeletal problems, although the exact danger threshold is unknown. Studies of aluminum products has suggested that they are safe for most consumers, although some people may experience contact dermatitis when they handle products like pots, antiperspirants, and antacids.