Silver, the new green

Environment considerations take high priority today as the world's rising population places ever greater demands on resources. When it comes to sustainable construction, bamboo often tops the list, being fast-growing and versatile; but not far behind is aluminium. Also highly versatile, its lightweight and durable properties make it an excellent choice for construction.

Aluminium’s application in building took off in the 1950s, but it has far older roots. Famously, the church dome of San Gioacchino in Rome was clad in aluminium sheeting in 1898, and in 1931 the Empire State Building in New York became the first building to use anodised aluminium components.

Here are some important factors that make aluminium the environmental product of choice.

Aluminium is the most common metal element in the earth’s crust, accounting for seven per cent of its mineral make-up. It is naturally found as bauxite, which is easily extracted from surface mines in Australia, Brazil, Suriname, Jamaica and other parts of the world, and then processed into alumina, from which the metal is made. Even by today’s consumption rate, global reserves are predicted to last several centuries.

Aluminium has been recycled since it was first commercially produced, and today recycled aluminium accounts for one-third of global consumption worldwide. Recycling makes good sense economically, technically and ecologically: it takes only 5 per cent of the energy used to extract and process aluminium from raw ore, with correspondingly minimal GHG emissions. This means that all aluminium products retain value, even at the end of their useful life. In Europe, up to 98 per cent of architectural aluminium is recycled – and with around 75 per cent of all aluminium ever produced still in use, it is a great resource for future generations.

Aluminium forms a natural film on its surface upon exposure to oxygen. This film is called aluminium oxide, and it protects the surface of the metal from corrosion. If this film is scratched or damaged, it will instantly reform.

Aluminium building products are made from alloys that are weatherproof, corrosion-resistant, and immune to the harmful effects of UV rays, ensuring optimal performance over a very long period of time. That cladding on San Gioacchino is still in pristine condition today, well over a century later.

Aluminium has a unique combination of properties that can be amplified and utilised through alloying. By alloying aluminium with magnesium, manufacturers are able to create a metal that is as strong as steel at only one-third of the weight.

Since aluminium is non-magnetic and non-sparking, it suits applications where explosive vapour mixtures are present. It also does not burn, and is therefore classified as a non-combustible construction material. Aluminium alloys will melt at around 650°C, but without releasing harmful gases. Industrial roofs and external walls are increasingly being made of thin aluminium cladding panels; these are intended to melt during a major fire, allowing heat and smoke to escape and thereby minimising damage.

Aluminium’s unique combination of strength and corrosion resistance makes it particularly versatile for construction. At Monkeytoe we have successfully replaced heavy structural steel platforms with our lightweight aluminium solutions; these are made up from custom extrusions, with the metal in all the right places, and they easily rival their heavyweight rivals.

With the global aluminium industry committed to reducing its emissions figures, and given the many benefits of this robust, adaptable and eco-friendly metal, silver is definitely the new green.

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