It seems like aluminum is a ubiquitous part of our lives. It can be found in every room of our house, including the kitchen and the bedroom and everywhere in between. It’s not an exaggeration to say that there’s almost no industry that it hasn’t profoundly impacted in the past 100 years. From the aluminum foil we use to wrap our food to the mobile phones we use to organize our lives, from the cars we drive to the rockets that take astronauts into space, aluminum is the common ingredient.
It might surprise you to learn that aluminum has only been commonly used for about the last century, especially when you consider that aluminum is the most abundant metal on Earth. Until relatively recently, it was unavailable as a commercial material. So how is it that this metal, which is so widespread and useful, was basically unknown to humanity throughout most of our development? We’ll answer that question and more as we look at the unusual history of aluminum.
The Science Behind Aluminum
Aluminum is an element on the periodic table, denoted with the symbol Al and the atomic number 13. Pure aluminum is a silver-white metal that is soft and ductile, non-magnetic and has weak mechanical properties.
Aluminum is so abundant that it accounts for approximately 8% of the Earth’s crust, making it the third most commonly found element in the crust following oxygen and silicon. Among its many worthwhile traits, it is both low in density and highly corrosion resistant.
Despite being so prevalent, one significant fact about aluminum is that it’s highly reactive in its natural state. This makes pure aluminum extremely rare; it is found in many different compounds and ores, chief among them bauxite. If you’ve seen or heard of a bauxite mine or processing plant, what they are really doing is mining for aluminum. In nature, aluminum has been discovered in more than 270 different minerals.
The Discovery of Aluminum
The complex history of aluminum extends beyond just how rare it is in its pure form. An added challenge is the fact that refining aluminum from any of the various compounds is a difficult and energy intensive process; for a long time, no one even knew that aluminum existed as an element. One of its most prevalent compounds is known as alum, which has been known since as far back as the fifth century BC. Ancient civilization used alum as part of the dyeing process.
Alum became an important commodity in the Middle Ages, and it began to be extensively studied by scientists during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. It was eventually determined that this compound was an oxide of some new, still undiscovered metal. It took several more decades of experimentation before 1825, when Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted finally worked out a way to isolate pure aluminum via a reduction of aluminum chloride.
However, even though scientists had finally worked out what aluminum was, the process of extracting it from ore was so arduous that it would be another century before the industrial use of aluminum became commercially viable. In fact, after its discovery, the price of pure aluminum exceeded that of gold. Obviously, finding a way to extract aluminum in a cost effective manner became something of a holy grail for scientists.
The Race for Commercial Aluminum
Now that a process had been discovered for isolating pure aluminum, the next step was to develop a consistent production method. This was a multi-stage process that involved scientists around the world working over the course of decades. In 1856, French chemist Henri Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville launched the first industrial production of aluminum, though it was still a costly endeavor.
The big breakthrough happened in the late 1880’s, as a trio of scientists finally found success. French engineer Paul Héroult and American engineer Charles Martin Hall independently developed the Hall–Héroult process, while Carl Joseph Bayer, an Austrian chemist, came up with a technique known as the Bayer process. These methods for aluminum production are still in use today.
The Search for Aluminum Alloys
With the ability to extract aluminum in a cost effective manner, the final stage of development focused on the creation of aluminum alloys. Pure aluminum has very low mechanical properties and few commercial applications. Only when alloyed with other elements, such as silicon, zinc, copper and others, does aluminum become the high strength, light weight, wonder material we’re familiar with today.
The world’s production of aluminum stood at 6,800 metric tons in 1900. The two world wars and the advent of the aviation industry were the primary movers for the rapid expansion of commercial aluminum in the early 20th century. By 1954, the production of aluminum had reached 2,810,000 metric tons, surpassing copper as the most produced non-ferrous metal.
It’s amazing to think about how quickly aluminum became a critical part of industrial development. In only a few decades after its commercialization, it has become an essential material in a number of new industries, including aviation, automobiles, food and beverage, architecture and more.
Some early landmarks of the aluminum age included the introduction of aluminum freight cars in 1931 and the invention of the aluminum beverage can in 1956. Earth’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. It was made from two separate aluminum half-spheres, ushering in the era of human space flight with aluminum leading the way.
The use of aluminum has continued to skyrocket, and you’d be hard-pressed to think of any industry that doesn’t involve aluminum in some way. World production in 2015 was an amazing 58,500,000 metric tons, proving that our appetite for aluminum is nowhere near coming to an end.
With the amazing diversity of aluminum alloys now available, manufacturers need to work with a trusted and experienced material supplier. At Clinton Aluminum, we are committed to working with our clients through every step of the procurement process to ensure that they get the most value from their raw material supply stream. Contact one of our friendly and dedicated professionals today to learn more.