Interview With an Element: Alumin(i)um

by Simone Bauer

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