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    To a hobby robotics builder, aluminum is one of the most important materials you will use. It is very strong, light, resistant to corrosion, and affordable. Most importantly, it is very easy to cut, shape, drill, and bend.

    Aluminum Strength FEA Analysis

    Aluminum is not as strong as steel, and rarely as cheap. So why is aluminum useful? It is because aluminum has a much much higher strength to weight ratio. This means that for a mass of aluminum and an equal mass of steel, aluminum would be much stronger. Aluminum would be more expensive for an equal mass as well, but would you need as much mass if it is stronger?

    Corrosion Resistance and Protection Coatings
    What is interesting about aluminum is that it is resistant to rust. In actuality, aluminum does rust, but it quickly forms an oxidized layer which acts as a protective coating against any further rust. But there are some occasions where rust could still potentially present a problem. For example, physical wear will 'wipe off' that protective rust layer and slowly eat away at the aluminum. Have you ever touched aluminum that has been in water for awhile? You will notice your fingers will turn a blackish grey when you do - thats aluminum rust. So there are a few solutions. There are various types of aluminum such as 5052, which is a marine grade rust resistant type. There is also this process called iriditing. Iriditing is a cheap and fast process that basically coats aluminum in a hard protective oxidized layer that would prevent all rust. You can either have it specially done at some machinist shop, or buy a do it at home iriditing kit. I have never used the home kit before, but supposedly you just paint this stuff on with a brush and your good to go. I have had to get this done for the robot fish I am currently working on as rust was just icky. Plus, iriditing leaves a pretty bronzish like finish on the surface.

    Anodized Aluminum

    There are two other very common coatings to resist corrosion. Black oxidization is about as effective as iriditing, however is a harder coat to resist physical wear damage too. If you have ever seen a screw black in color, you probably saw a black oxide coating. The last coating type is galvenization. This is basically a layer of zinc placed over the metal. Corrosion will attack only the outer zinc coating leaving the metal to be protected rust free. Its very cheap, however will quickly get your hands dirty with contact. The ad links on the top right of this page usually have anti-corrosion products too.

    Aluminum Wear, and Anodization
    Remember when you were a kid and learned that diamonds can scratch glass but glass can't scratch diamonds? Remember how only the harder material scratched the softer material? This is a problem for aluminum, as most metals, and even rocks, tend to have a higher hardness. Usually this is not a big deal, unless of course you expect other things to rub up against your aluminum often. For example, I once had to make a cam and follower device, where a rough steel cam (rough because it was laser cut) rubbed up against a flat follower. A steel follower would have been ideal, except it would have been much more expensive to make, and low weight was a critical design factor. Instead I opted to do what is called anodization. This is somewhat expensive and difficult process involving a special bath and electricity (that can be done by a trained machinist) which adds an extremely hard protective layer (usually about .0004" thick) to your aluminum. As with iriditing, anodization also changes the color. I have seen both polished red and dull greenish-brown. Basically you can immerse the anodized coating in a dye solution before sealing to get whatever color you want. If you do battle bots where weight is an issue, but aluminum is too soft for you, perhaps you can consider an anodized aluminum structure?

    Aluminum Robot Heat Sink

    Thermal Abilities
    Almost all heat sinks are made out of aluminum. Why? Because aluminum has a very high thermal conductivity. Actually, I believe copper is the only other affordable and easily available metal with a higher conductivity. But aluminum is still better because copper is 3 times the cost, heavier, and is too soft. How is this useful for building robots? Well this is good if you need to sink heat from your motors to your chassis. I do not recommend making finned heat sinks on your own unless you have a CNC to do it for you. Instead, scrap them from old computers, or buy them online such as from Digikey.

    How to Work with Aluminum.
    Working with aluminum can be thickness dependent. For most robots thin sheets well placed in your design is more than sufficient. A simple bandsaw and drill press is usually sufficient for cutting and drilling, respectively. Mills are nice so you can get really clean cuts, but generally are not required unless you cut really thick peices of aluminum. A power belt sander can clean both your rounded and straight cuts nicely. Aluminum also taps (putting threads in a material for screws to go in to) very easily. Sandpaper and Scotchbrite are great for rounding corners or improving shine. Lastly, consider getting thinner aluminum sheets and bend them into high strength custom shapes.

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