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Aluminum provides the backbone for much of our transport, electronics and energy infrastructure.

Stuff of Progress, Pt. 9: Aluminum

By Tony Morley @tonymmorley

We are all familiar with aluminum. It is an integral part of everyday life. From our technology to our infrastructure, aluminum seems omnipresent. That wasn’t always the case, as refined aluminum was once rare and outlandishly expensive. Aluminum was discovered by the English chemist Humphry Davy in 1808. However, technical difficulties prohibited Davy from refining the metal into aluminum. It took nearly 37 years of trial and error before researchers were able to produce small granules of metallic aluminum. 

In the decades between 1855 and 1890, just 200 tonnes of aluminum were produced. That kept the price of the metal high and limited its use dramatically. As such, the first aluminum products were extravagant symbols of wealth and luxury. In 1855, 12 relatively small aluminum bullion ingots were exhibited by French Emperor Napoleon III at the Exposition Universelle – such was the value of aluminum that people gathered to bask in its presence. When Napoleon hosted a lavish dinner for the King of Siam, the most highly honored guests were served their meals upon aluminum dishes and ate with aluminum cutlery. The other, somewhat less distinguished guests, had to content themselves with gold cutlery. 

Aluminum, however, had a wide range of beneficial characteristics that went beyond mere beauty. Pure aluminum has a high strength to weight ratio, is extremely resistant to corrosion, is non-magnetic and conducts electricity with great efficiency. It was immediately clear that aluminum could be of great industrial, commercial, military and scientific utility, if only it could be produced in a cost effective manner. 

Aluminum accounts for just over 8 percent of the Earth's crust by weight. However, unlike many other metals, aluminum is not found in its metallic form within nature. Rather, it is locked in a bond as silicates within a clay bauxite, which can contain more than 50 percent of aluminum by weight. Between 1825 and 1845, Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Oersted and German chemist Friedrich Wohler developed a process for producing pure aluminum in bulk. It was the first commercial process of its kind. The breakthrough resulted in the price of aluminum plummeting by more than 90 percent. 

Still relatively expensive to produce, the manufacture of aluminum would see one further breakthrough in 1886, when American chemist Charles Martin Hall and French scientist Paul Héroult developed a process of smelting aluminum from bauxite via high intensity electrolysis. The Hall–Héroult Process changed how humanity produced and utilized aluminum forever. Smelting bauxite into elemental aluminum through the Hall–Héroult process allowed for 24/7 continuous casting and an unparalleled reduction in the cost of aluminum. 

“The price of aluminum fell from $545 a pound in the 1880s to 20 cents a pound in the 1930s, thanks to the innovations of Charles Martin Hall and his successors at Alcoa,” noted the British author Matt Ridley in his 2010 book The Rational Optimist. Whereas global aluminum production was measured in hundreds of tonnes throughout the 1800s, today global production of the metal exceeds 60 million tonnes, with no shortages in sight. On current projections, demand for aluminum will exceed 80 million tonnes annually by 2023. The Chinese automotive manufacturing sector alone is projected to increase its use of the metal from 3.8 million tonnes in 2018 to 9.1 million tonnes in 2030. In addition to the manufacture of cars (including electric vehicles), aluminum’s most common uses include: refrigerators, air conditioning, solar panels; power lines; rolled products (e.g. tin foil); heat sinks for cooling CPU's and graphics processors, and construction (e.g., skylights, bridges, ladders, railings, rods, doors and wiring).

The global production of aluminum has changed dramatically over the decades. In the early 1970s, global aluminum production was dominated by the United States, USSR and Japan, which accounted for nearly 60 percent of global aluminum output. Today, those same regions produce just over 10 percent of the metal. In recent decades, China zoomed passed the United States to become one the world’s greatest aluminum producers. 

The enormous surge in global production of aluminum since 1950 had less to do with dramatic technological advances in the refining, smelting and casting process, and much more to do with extensive improvements in global trade, exploration and mining. The economic liberalization of China, for example, led to a surge in demand and production of the metal. Over the course of the next decade, the use of aluminum is set to grow in lockstep with continued growth in the technology sector, the transportation sector and the renewable and conventional energy sectors. 

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