The use of aluminum in vehicles has been growing for years, but Ford's decision to use the metal extensively in its new pickups helps speed up the trend.
Aluminum is the second-most abundant metallic element in the earth's crust, after silicon, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey. It's also the second-most used metal in the world, after iron, by both value and weight.
It's useful because it can be easily shaped or cast into sheets or parts, it is resistant to corrosion and it is lightweight. That's because aluminum atoms have about one third the number of protons and neutrons crammed into their centers than iron or copper, making aluminum much less dense.
Aluminum is used to make pots and pans, aircraft, soda cans, power lines, window frames, bicycles and railway cars.
Most traditional combinations of aluminum and other metals, called alloys, are not as strong as steel, which itself is an alloy of iron and carbon. In the past, the process of producing aluminum alloys strong enough to be used in body parts that can move a heavy load has been more expensive than steel.
Automakers and others are increasingly willing to pay more, however, to reduce weight so drivers can save on fuel. Also, aluminum makers have developed manufacturing techniques that have made aluminum more attractive for more applications, such as coatings that allow carmakers to more easily fuse sheets together or stamp out shapes that carmakers want.
The metal has been used in the auto industry for decades, and aluminum is already the second most used material in cars. Aluminum is expected to take an ever bigger role as automakers work to meet increasingly strict fuel economy requirements in the coming years.
Alcoa, the world's biggest aluminum maker, says aluminum use in cars will nearly double by 2025.