From Alumina to
The United States' aluminum industry annually produces about
$40 billion in products and exports. Aluminum is one of the few products
and industries left in America that truly impacts every community in the
country, either through physical plants and facilities, recycling, heavy
industry, or consumption of consumer goods.
In terms of both its positive economic and environmental impact, the
aluminum industry remains one of our most significant national and
international success stories.
Top markets for the industry are transportation, beverage cans and
other packaging, and building/construction.
In 1994, transportation first emerged as the largest market for
aluminum, at about one-quarter of the market, with passenger cars
accounting for the vast majority of the growth. Up until 2009, that
trend has largely continued.
While transportation has typically represented the largest market for
aluminum in North America over the past two decades, 2009 marked
the worst year for auto sales since 1982 and, as such, transportation
applications accounted for only 23.7 percent of all aluminum shipments -
4.22 billion pounds in all. The majority of this aluminum was used
in automotive and light truck applications, as vehicle
manufacturers continue to opt for lightweight
aluminum solutions to improve fuel economy, reduce emissions and
enhance vehicle performance. Aluminum-intensive automobiles include the
Audi A8 - with its aluminum body, aluminum front and rear axle, and
numerous other aluminum components - and the Jaguar XK, with its
aluminum monocoque body structure.
In 2009, containers and packaging regained their position as the top
market for aluminum. The aluminum industry shipped 4.73 billion pounds
for packaging applications, or 26.5 percent of all
shipments. Aluminum is used in products such as beverage cans and
bottles, food containers, and household and institutional
foil. Product manufacturers and consumers appreciate foil for its
impermeability to light, water, and oxygen - making it a preferred
barrier material for beverage, food, and pharmaceutical products.
Additionally, aluminum's low weight gives it a competitive advantage
over other materials with regard to shipping costs.
Largely due to products in the residential, industrial, commercial,
farm, and highway sectors, the 2009 building and construction market
accounted for 2.13 billion pounds of net shipments, good for 11.9
percent of total shipments and the third largest North American market
Aluminum has many advantages for electrical applications. It is
lightweight, strong, corrosion resistant, and a highly efficient
conductor (aluminum has twice the conductivity, per pound, of
copper)—rendering it the material of choice for transmitting power
from generating stations to homes and businesses. It is also infinitely
recyclable, making it a perfect fit for today’s environment.
In 2010, electrical market applications rose 13.1 percent, to 1.472
billion pounds. Shipments of ACSR, bare cable, and insulated wire and
cable products totaled 631 million pounds, off 11 million pounds from
the previous year. The North American electrical market was the fourth
largest for aluminum, accounting for 7.3 percent of all aluminum
shipments during the year.
From Metal Processing to Fabrication and Components
Aluminum originates as an oxide called alumina. Because aluminum
itself does not occur in nature as a metal, the processing of aluminum
took a giant leap forward with the advent of electricity.
Deposits of bauxite ore are mined and refined into alumina - one of
the feedstocks for aluminum metal. Then alumina and
electricity are combined in a cell with a molten electrolyte called
cryolite. Direct current electricity is passed from a consumable carbon
anode into the cryolite, splitting the aluminum oxide into molten
aluminum metal and carbon-dioxide.
The molten aluminum collects at the bottom of the cell and is
periodically "tapped" into a crucible and cast into ingots. While
continual progress has been made over the 125-year history of
aluminum processing to reduce the amount of electricity used, there are
currently no viable alternatives to the electrometallurgical
However, between materials recovery and ongoing innovative research
and development efforts, the aluminum industry is constantly searching
for ways in which energy and costs can be reduced. In the past two
decades, the energy efficiency of the production of metal has been
improved by about 20 percent.
The North American aluminum supply is comprised of three basic
Imports (of primary and secondary ingot and mill products)
Recycled (metal recovered from scrap, also known as secondary
In 2009, the aluminum supply in North America totaled 17.83
billion pounds, a decrease of 19.6 percent from 2008. Just under 50
percent of the aluminum used in North America comes from domestically
produced primary aluminum while about 30 percent is derived from
recycled materials. The remainder is imported.
The automotive industry is the largest market for aluminum castings, and
cast products make up more than half of the aluminum used in cars. Cast
aluminum transmission housing and pistons have been virtually universal
in cars and trucks throughout the world for years.
Extruded aluminum is the material of choice for countless applications.
Designers and materials specifiers choose aluminum profiles because
extrusion offers so many design advantages: various alloys can
be readily formed into complex shapes; extrusion tooling is inexpensive;
lead times for custom shapes or prototypes are relatively brief; many
different finishes are available; and the life-cycle value of the
product remains high due to aluminum's recyclability.
Aluminum mill products are semi-fabricated products such as
sheet, plate, foil, extruded products, drawing stock, bare wire, ACSR
and bare cable, insulated/covered wire and cable, pigments and powder,
forgings, and impacts. In 2005, shipments of aluminum mill products
totaled 12.69 billion pounds, or 71.1 percent of total aluminum
Issues Facing the Industry
International trade is vitally important to the health of the aluminum
industry, and the industry has generated success both at home and
abroad. U.S. exports of aluminum in 2009 totaled 2.83 billion pounds - a
decrease of 13.6 percent from 2008. Canada and Mexico are among the
U.S. industry's largest trading partners.
The aluminum industry is a major industrial user of electricity. Since
the electrolytic process is the only commercially proven method of
producing aluminum, the industry has on its own pursued opportunities to
reduce its use of electricity. In the last 50 years, the average amount
of electricity needed to make a pound of aluminum has been slashed from
12 kilowatt hours to about 7 kilowatt hours.
and Climate Change
From an environmental perspective, the aluminum industry also is a
leader in the preservation of natural resources. Total U.S. aluminum
industry supply in 2009 was 7.99 million metric tons, 28.3
percent of which was recycled aluminum. Of the 96.6 billion aluminum
cans shipped in the U.S. in 2009, 57.4 percent (55.5 billion) were
recycled. Almost 90 percent of automotive aluminum is reclaimed and
recycled. Recycling of aluminum saves energy and avoids some 95 percent
of the emissions associated with making new aluminum from ore.
The role of recycling in the aluminum industry cannot be
overstated. Recycling is a critical component of the industry, both from
its contributions to the environment and because of its favorable
economic impact on production. This dual benefit is probably the reason
aluminum beverage cans now account for virtually all of the beverage can
market, and a majority of the total single-serve beverage market.
What's more, the contribution of recycling has had a positive impact
on the industry with energy savings brought about from the increased
proportion of recycled metal as a resource. The energy used to produce
aluminum is saved for future re-use through recycling. Recycling saves
almost 95 percent of the energy needed to produce aluminum from its
original source, bauxite ore.
As the use of aluminum has grown, the industry has become a pioneer
in the field of recycling, earning worldwide recognition as a leader in
materials recovery. The aluminum industry's commitment to recyclable
resources is a major factor both in the industry's growth and in
improved living environments for communities across the country that
benefit economically from the recycling of aluminum.
Today, aluminum is the most commonly recycled post-consumer metal in
The aluminum industry employs the latest technology to make the
process of refining bauxite ore and reducing alumina to aluminum more
efficient and energy saving. Through its partnership with the Department of Energy
(DOE), The Aluminum Association is vigorously working to
help the industry make greater gains in reducing energy consumption. For
instance, there are a variety of ongoing technology projects and
activities under the DOE's "Industries of the Future" program.
Additionally, The Aluminum Association, acting on behalf of the
industry, has completed a series of vision and technology roadmap
documents. These roadmaps have defined energy and environmental
performance targets, identified technology barriers, and recommended
areas of technology that are ripe for precompetitive, collaborative
efforts among the industry, government, and academia. In addition to a
generic industry technology roadmap, others have been developed relating
to advanced electrode technology for smelting and fabrication technology
specific to the automotive markets.
Increased use of aluminum in transportation applications and
elsewhere also has significantly reduced energy and fuel consumption and
reduced carbon-dioxide emissions.
The aluminum industry has strategically administered its pollution
control efforts to actively address environmental issues. The track
record is one that brings us great pride. The history, and success, of
the aluminum industry is based on its ability to promote energy
conservation and waste reduction within the industry itself and among