The alveoli are located in the respiratory zone of the lungs, at the distal termination of the alveolar ducts and atria. These air sacs are the forming and termination point of the respiratory tract. They provide total surface area of about 100 m2.
A typical pair of human lungs contain about 700 million alveoli, producing 70m2 of surface area. Each alveolus is wrapped in a fine mesh of capillaries covering about 70% of its area. An adult alveolus has an average diameter of 200 micrometres, with an increase in diameter during inhalation.
The alveoli consist of an epithelial layer and extracellular matrix surrounded by capillaries. In some alveolar walls there are pores between alveoli called Pores of Kohn. The alveoli contain some collagen and elastic fibres. The elastic fibers allow the alveoli to stretch as they are filled with air during inhalation. They then spring back during exhalation in order to expel the carbon dioxide-rich air.
There are three major cell types in the alveolar wall (pneumocytes):
Reinflation of the alveoli following exhalation is made easier by pulmonary surfactant, which is a phospholipid and protein mixture that reduces surface tension in the thin fluid coating within all alveoli. The fluid coating is produced by the body in order to facilitate the transfer of gases between blood and alveolar air. The surfactant is produced by great alveolar cells (granular pneumonocytes, a cuboidal epithelia), which are the most numerous cells in the alveoli, yet do not cover as much surface area as the squamous alveolar cells (a squamous epithelium).