Since the early days of aviation, metals and metalloids have been implemented in the majority of components that make up an aircraft. While metals may differ significantly in physical and chemical properties, they are generally rigid and suitable for a wide range of applications. In this blog, we will discuss the several metals and metal-containing elements used in modern aviation.
Before diving into the details about what metals are used in aviation, it is first essential to understand the broad definition of a metallic substance. Metals are elements that are generally durable yet easy to physically manipulate while also being great conductors of heat and electricity. Due to their molecular structure, metals may differ significantly in appearance and uses. The most extreme example of a metal displaying non-traditional properties is mercury, which is liquid at room temperature. Metalloids are closely related to metals, and some are used in combination to create durable components. Finally, alloys are a mixture consisting of metal-metal or metal-nonmetal elements. They are used extensively in aviation because the designer can create more favorable properties than the pure element alone.
No other metal has been implemented as frequently and in as many places as aluminum. This metal is unique because of its lightweight yet strong nature, as well as its enduring resistance to corrosion. Despite its general ubiquity in aviation, pure aluminum is rarely ever found on an aircraft, and instead, differing aluminum alloys are found on various parts of the plane. For example, the 2024 alloy combines aluminum with copper to create a high strength-to-weight ratio and is used to craft the fuselage and wings. Meanwhile, 7075 uses aluminum and zinc to create a substance with incredible fatigue resistance while also maintaining a relatively decent degree of protection against corrosion.
Stainless steel was another early-used metal that is still found on some parts today. Displaying incredible corrosion resistance and operating over a broad temperature range, stainless steel is a versatile compound that can be used to craft many critical components. It also has a high melting point and shear modulus, both of which are ideal for parts of the aircraft readily exposed to extreme elements, such as the landing gear and engine. While beneficial in certain aspects, stainless steel is still much heavier than aluminum and more expensive in the long run.
Titanium has recently garnered popularity in aviation due to several of its favorable properties. With longstanding use in high-performance military aircraft, titanium is finding its way into commercial aviation, comprising many of the components found on A380 and B787 Jets. While initially more pricey than other metals, titanium is incredibly lightweight while still maintaining heat and corrosion resistance. Currently, titanium finds use in fastening elements, but with novel carbon-fiber-reinforced polymers (CFRPs) on the rise, titanium is starting to make its way into airframe and landing gear elements. Another unique application for titanium is powder metallurgy, which involves coating the vehicle's exterior with titanium powder to provide even more robust corrosion resistance and strength profile.
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