Aluminium: Taking flights to infinity and beyond

Aluminium is used as a building material for space shuttles and other space equipment

A breeze of positivity and optimism swept across the country as the Chandrayan -3 entered the lunar orbit, reinforcing India’s growing supremacy in infinity and beyond. We are now the fifth among spacefaring nations with end-to-end space research and development capabilities. India’s space programme is quite exhaustive. In the last five years, till July 2023, 27 satellite and 22 Launch Vehicle missions have been accomplished.

Riding on technical and technological progress, India’s indigenization in the space sector has been impressive over the years. The space sector reforms brought out in 2020 have provided the required fillip to the sector, with new space industries emerging fast. Private participation has been encouraging. The establishment of IN-SPACe, announced in 2020 as an autonomous agency, aimed to create an eco-system of industry, academia and start-ups and garner a significant share in the global space economy, yielded tremendous results. India’s space economy is forecasted to touch the $100 billion mark by 2040.

The greater success will hinge on how our domestic industries, such as those producing aluminium, are equipped to provide value-added alloys for the space-exploration sector. Since aluminium is a key metal, the focus should be sourcing indigenously developed high-end aluminium for the space programme.

Among others, aluminium is used as a building material for space shuttles and other space equipment; for making aircraft structural parts, components, spaceships, and satellites. Since first venturing into space in 1957 with Sputnik 1, aluminium has made a massive stride into space over the years, with our own Chandrayaan-3 also carrying a significant amount of aluminium and its alloys. Aluminium is the metal for every day, every place, space, and beyond.

Light weight-high strength and corrosion-resistant aluminium has always been the metal of choice for those who fancy flight to infinity and beyond. Zeppelin used aluminium girders to make the framework of the first airship; the Wright brothers used them to make the cylinder block and other parts of the Wright Flyer. The trend is more than just unabated; aluminium usage is only rising in the space sector owing to the magic metal’s intrinsic and unparalleled value. Due to its strength, durability and low density (one-third that of steel), aluminium is tailor-made for applications requiring solid but lightweight materials, such as aviation and aerospace.

Its non-combustible, high strength-to-weight ratio and an ability to withstand very high to extremely low temperatures make aluminium an excellent metal for use in the space sector. Generally, aluminium alloys can withstand temperatures as low as -270°C (-454°F), close to absolute zero. For information, the temperature on the moon’s surface ranges from 140°C to −171°C. Aluminium alloys, which are used in aerospace applications, do not face any significant issues in terms of property deterioration in this operating range. It is highly flexible and formable, which makes fabricating small aerospace components more effortless, and aids in fuel efficiency as well.

ISRO has been actively using aluminium to construct its satellites and launch vehicles. For example, ISRO’s workhorse launch vehicle, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), utilizes aluminium extensively in its structure. However, ISRO’s use of aluminium is relatively lower than space agencies like NASA and other national space agencies. NASA is also involved in more complex and high-profile projects which require extensive use of aluminium. The metal is also used by aircraft manufacturers, suppliers, and defence organizations.

India is the second largest aluminium producer, sandwiched between China and Russia. India needs to bolster its aluminium industry not just for itself but also for the rest of the world. With one of the largest reserves of bauxite in the world, India is better positioned to augment its space programme through indigenously produced high-quality aluminium.

This can happen through increased exploration, on the one hand, and a close collaboration with the scientific community working on space exploration and the aluminium producers’ fraternity to propel the next revolution in developing fit-for-purpose aluminium alloys on the other hand. Looking at its increasing relevance in strategic sectors such as infrastructure, defence, aerospace, automotive etc., it may be prudent to consider a separate ministry for aluminium, like the one for steel, to give aluminium the focus it deserves, or at least bring out a separate aluminium policy, as was suggested by the Niti Aayog long ago.

While domestic players, including Vedanta, are doing their bit, the government has to encourage and incentivize the industry to go for technological upgradation for low-density, high- strength alloys needed in the space sector. The domestic industry should be securely served with the raw material – only 17% of the bauxite under the proven and probable category has been explored. There is hence a need to enhance bauxite production and provide a favourable ecosystem to boost aluminium production in the country. Setting up new manufacturing units to add to capacity and value-addition should be encouraged. The space sector must also contribute significantly if India wants to become a developed, Atmanirbhar nation. 

(This article is authored by Rahul Sharma, President – Aluminium Association of India)

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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