Magnesium and Magnesium Alloys

in Aircraft Materials Processes and Hardware

Magnesium, the world’s lightest structural metal, is a silvery white material weighing only two-thirds as much as aluminum. Magnesium does not possess sufficient strength in its pure state for structural uses, but when alloyed with zinc, aluminum, and manganese it produces an alloy having the highest strength to weight ratio of any of the commonly used metals.

Magnesium is probably more widely distributed in nature than any other metal. It can be obtained from such ores as dolomite and magnesite, and from sea water, underground brines, and waste solutions of potash. With about 10 million pounds of magnesium in 1 cubic mile of sea water, there is no danger of a dwindling supply.

Some of today’s aircraft require in excess of one-half ton of this metal for use in hundreds of vital spots. Some wing panels are fabricated entirely from magnesium alloys, weigh 18 percent less than standard aluminum panels, and have flown hundreds of satisfactory hours. Among the aircraft parts that have been made from magnesium with a substantial savings in weight are nosewheel doors, flap cover skin, aileron cover skin, oil tanks, floorings, fuselage parts, wingtips, engine nacelles, instrument panels, radio masts, hydraulic fluid tanks, oxygen bottle cases, ducts, and seats.

Magnesium alloys possess good casting characteristics. Their properties compare favorably with those of cast aluminum. In forging, hydraulic presses are ordinarily used, although, under certain conditions, forging can
be accomplished in mechanical presses or with drop hammers.

Magnesium alloys are subject to such treatments as annealing, quenching, solution heat treatment, aging, and stabilizing. Sheet and plate magnesium are annealed at the rolling mill. The solution heat treatment is used to put as much of the alloying ingredients as possible into solid solution, which results in high tensile strength and maximum ductility. Aging is applied to castings following heat treatment where maximum hardness and yield strength are desired.

Magnesium embodies fire hazards of an unpredictable nature. When in large sections, its high thermal conductivity makes it difficult to ignite and prevents it from burning. It will not burn until the melting point of 1,204 °F is reached. However, magnesium dust and fine chips are ignited easily. Precautions must be taken to avoid this if possible. Should a fire occur, it can be extinguished with an extinguishing powder, such as soapstone or graphite. Water or any standard liquid or foam fire extinguisher cause magnesium to burn more rapidly and can cause explosions.

Magnesium alloys produced in the United States consist of magnesium alloyed with varying proportions of aluminum, manganese, and zinc. These alloys are designated by a letter of the alphabet, with the number 1 indicating
high purity and maximum corrosion resistance.

Many of the magnesium alloys manufactured in the United States are produced by the Dow Chemical Company and have been given the trade name of Dowmetal™ alloys. To distinguish between these alloys, each is assigned a letter. Thus, we have Dowmetal J, Dowmetal M, and so forth.

Another manufacturer of magnesium alloys is the American Magnesium Corporation, a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America. This company uses an identification system similar to that used for aluminum alloys, with the exception that magnesium alloy numbers are preceded with the letters AM. Thus, AM240C is a cast alloy, and AM240C4 is the same alloy in the heat-treated state. AM3S0 is an annealed wrought alloy, and AM3SRT is the same alloy rolled after heat treatment.