Aluminium

Introduction to the aluminium industry

Considered to be an elite material, it was only used to make ornaments, until 1867 when aluminium wire and foil was presented at a Paris exhibition, along with the new alloy metal aluminium bronze.

Not long after this in 1885, the Russians became the third country in the world after England and France to start manufacturing it at an industrial level.

Before the turn of the 19th-century, cookware made from this material had almost totally replaced copper and cast iron, due to its lighter weight, anti-corrosive properties and ability to heat and cool very quickly. It was then used to construct a steamboat, passenger rails cars and the first sports car with a frame completely made from this metal.

These developments paved the way for arguably the most significant application of this metal – its use in aeroplanes. In 1903 the first flight in human history was carried out by a flying machine with steering apparatus.

In order to lift off into the air, the plane needed to be extremely light, which resulted in an engine made largely out of aluminium. And once aluminium foil replaced tin foil in 1907, there was no ignoring this super-light, extremely strong metal.

This opened the door to many alloys being developed, including duralumin, which is harder, more durable and elastic than pure aluminium.

A further important application came in 1931 when it was used heavily in the design of the Empire State Building.

Even in space, as envisioned by Jules Verne in 1865, when he wrote about an aluminium space rocket, the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, was launched in 1957 by the USSR which was made just about entirely from this material and only weighed 83kg.

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Uses and benefits of aluminium

What is aluminium used for, and why is it used?

  • Transport: Flexible, light and strong, it is no wonder that this is a favourite material to use in aviation, where it is known as the ‘winged metal’. Spacecraft, the automotive industry and trains also benefit greatly from the properties of this material.
  • Construction: Extremely resistant to corrosion, light, non-toxic and durable, it is a metal that can be shaped into virtually anything desired by the creative minds behind today’s modern buildings and structures.
  • Engineering: Aluminium has one of the highest electric conductivity rates of all known metals, but when combined with its extremely lightweight, you can appreciate why it is so popular for high-voltage power lines over large distances.
  • Consumer goods: Laptops, TV’s, sports equipment, furniture and household goods… there is no limit to what it can be used for when you need a material that will not rust, is light, yet strong and can be shaped to any form.
  • Packaging: Aluminium foil is perfect for packaging due to its insulating properties and non-toxicity, which protects consumable food against light, liquid and bacteria. Hence the reason why the metal is a key property in bottle caps, food containers, packets, and canned food. And when it comes to soft drink cans, it is strong enough to support carbonated pressure.

It is hard to find an industry which does not use aluminium products for something critical or extremely useful in its day-to-day functioning.

The fascinating history of aluminium

Did you know?

  • When pure, in a metallic form is not found in nature but occurs in bauxite, an aluminium-rich mineral found mainly in the tropics.
  • An aluminium based salt called alum was used in ancient times by the Chinese for elaborate ornaments, in Europe as a tanning agent or city wall defences, in the paper-pulp industry and in medicine for various disciplines.
  • In 1808 an English chemist named Humphry Davy produced electrolytic reduction from aluminium oxide (alumina), while Hans Christian Ørsted from Denmark went further by producing an aluminium alloy in 1825.
  • In 1821, red clay rocks were discovered in Les Baux, France, by Geologist Pierre Berthier. They were named bauxite and turn out to be aluminium ore. The German Friedrich Wöhler took 18 years of experimentation to produce small solidified balls of this molten material in 1845.
  • Henri-Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville, the French chemist, improved on Wöhler’s process and produced the world’s first industrial aluminium in Rouen, France. 200 tonnes are then produced with this method between 1855 – 1890.
  • Paul Héroult and Charles Hall develop electrolytic production independently in 1886 by reducing molten aluminium oxide in cryolite.
  • In 1889 the Austrian chemist Carl Josef Bayer invented a method of producing alumina (aluminium oxide) that was cheap and feasible to carry out.
  • C.W Soderberg from Norway and a team of scientists improved on the Hall-Héroult method of production in 1920, which is still used today.

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