There are about 100 alloys in the Elektron range, containing from 0% to 9.5% of some of the following elements in varying proportions: aluminium (< 9.5%), yttrium (5.25%), neodymium (2.7%), silver (2.5%), gadolinium (1.3%), zinc (0.9%), zirconium (0.6%), manganese (0.5%) and other rare-earth metals.
Varying amounts of alloying elements (up to 9.5%) added to the magnesium result in changes to mechanical properties such as increased tensile strength, creep resistance, thermal stability or corrosion resistance. Elektron is unusually light and has a specific gravity of about 1.8 compared with the 2.8 of aluminium alloy. Magnesium's relatively low density makes its alloy variants suitable for use in auto racing and aerospace engineering applications.
Elektron or Elektronmetall was first developed in 1908 by Gustav Pistor and Wilhelm Moschel at the Bitterfeld works of Chemische Fabrik Griesheim-Elektron (CFGE or CFG), whose HQ was in Griesheim am Main, Germany. The composition of the initial Elektron alloy was approximately Mg 90%, Al 9%, other 1%. At its pavilion at the International Aviation Fair (Internationale Luftschiffahrt-Ausstellung, ILA) in Frankfurt am Main in 1909, CFG exhibited an Adler 75HP engine with a cast magnesium alloy crankcase. Also exhibiting at the 1909 Frankfurt Air Exhibition was August Euler (1868–1957) – owner of German pilot's licence No. 1 – who manufactured Voisin biplanes under licence in Griesheim am Main. His Voisins with Adler 50 hp engines flew in October 1909.
CFG joined the newly created IG Farben as an associate company in 1916. During the Allied Occupation after World War I, a Major Charles J. P. Ball, DSO, MC, of the Royal Horse Artillery was stationed in Germany. He later joined F. A. Hughes and Co. Ltd., which began manufacturing elektron in the UK under licence from IG Farben from around 1923.
CFG merged fully with the IG Farben conglomerate in 1925 along with Versuchsbau Hellmuth Hirth (a copper alloy manufacturer), and another company, Elektronmetall Bad Cannstatt Stuttgart, was formed. In 1935 IG Farben, ICI and F. A. Hughes and Co. (22% shares) founded Magnesium Elektron Ltd. of Clifton, Greater Manchester. The company is still manufacturing alloys in 2017.
Elektron has been used in aircraft, Zeppelins, and motor racing applications. In 1924 magnesium alloys (AZ; 2,5–3,0% Al; 3,0–4,0% Zn) were used in automobile pistons diecast by Elektronmetall Bad Cannstatt, another IG Farben company formed out of Versuchsbau Hellmuth Hirth.
Incendiary bombs using elektron were developed towards the end of the First World War by both Germany (the B-1E Elektronbrandbombe or Stabbrandbombe) and the UK. Although neither side used this type of bomb operationally during the conflict, Erich Ludendorff mentions in his memoirs a plan to bomb Paris with a new type of incendiary bomb with the aim of overwhelming the city's fire services; this planned raid was also reported in Le Figaro on 21 December 1918. The lightness of elektron meant that a large aeroplane like the Zeppelin-Staaken R-type bomber could carry hundreds of bomblets.
The British and German incendiary bombs, used extensively during World War II, weighed about 1 kg and consisted of an outer casing made of elektron alloy, which was filled with thermite pellets and fitted with a fuse. The fuse ignited the thermite, which in turn ignited the magnesium casing; it burned for about 15 minutes. Trying to douse the fire with water only intensified the reaction. It could not be extinguished and burned at such a high temperature that it could penetrate armour plate.
The bodywork of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR racing car was made of elektron. When it crashed and burst into flames during the 1955 Le Mans race, spectators in the stands were showered with burning debris. Stewards pouring water on the fires only made things worse, and the wreck burned for several hours. In addition to the driver Pierre Levegh, the death toll was approximately 80 to 84 spectators, killed either by flying debris or from the fire, with a further 120 to 178 injured.
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