Aluminum 101 | The Aluminum Association

Aluminum 101

Quick Read

Lightweight, durable and highly recyclable, aluminum has become an essential element of daily life. As the sustainable material of choice, its applications span from everyday items like fuel-efficient vehicles, smart phones, zippers and foil to wiring the nation’s power grid, the apex of the Washington Monument and housing the International Space Station.

The impact of aluminum recycling on the environment has been profound. An amazing 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still in use. Recycled aluminum production requires only 8 percent of the energy and creates 8 percent of the emissions compared with primary production. As more companies look for energy-saving innovations in their products and manufacturing methods, the aluminum industry is poised for even greater success.

Aluminum is truly the metal of modern life.

Take Away Facts

  • Versatile
    Aluminum is often referred to as a “miracle metal” and for good reason. Its long list of inherent properties—lightweight, corrosion resistant, easily formed, highly conductive, highly reflective, non-toxic, durable and recyclable—gives manufacturers and designers a wide range of options for product innovation and process improvements. By virtue of its strength and beauty, aluminum is also the backbone and facade of noteworthy buildings worldwide.
  • Sustainable
    The use of aluminum lowers energy costs and carbon emissions in dozens of applications. Recycled and lightweight aluminum packaging reduces shipping costs and emissions while an aluminum-intensive vehicle can achieve a 32 percent reduction in energy consumption over its lifetime. The North American aluminum industry will soon reach a point where it returns more energy than it consumes solely from the impact of light-weighting vehicles.
  • Mobility for the modern world
    Aluminum plays an ever-increasing role in bringing the world closer together. The transportation industry has long relied on aluminum’s light weight and durability to improve safety and increase fuel efficiency. Air and space travel would not be possible without aluminum, as even the Wright Brothers knew when selecting an aluminum engine for the first flight. And now the digital world is realizing the benefits of aluminum for both product design and manufacturing efficiency. The ubiquitous laptops, smart phones and tablets seen today are the latest showcase for the modern metal.
  • Economic impact
    The aluminum industry contributes nearly $174 billion in GDP to the nation’s economy and directly employs more than 162,000 workers, up 3.5 percent since 2013. And these numbers will continue to grow. Demand for strong, lightweight, recyclable aluminum grew for the eighth consecutive year -- up 45.1 percent.

History of Aluminum

Aluminum existed as a free metal in 1825 when Danish chemist Hans-Christian Oersted successfully extracted it from the earth. For the next 60 years, scientists learned more about the metal and sought better ways to obtain it. Today, we can still see one of these early applications of aluminum as the capstone of the Washington Monument—100 ounces of the light metal proudly rests at the apex of the monument today as it has since December 6, 1884.

In 1886, Charles Martin Hall in the U.S. and Paul Heroult of France simultaneously invented the electrolytic process for producing metallic aluminum from its oxide. Eleven years later, Austrian Carl Joseph Bayer invented the chemical process that refines alumina from bauxite. Together, these inventions contributed to the birth of the modern aluminum industry and are still used today by the alumina refineries and aluminum smelters around the world.

Aluminum Processing and Production

There are basically two methods for producing aluminum. Primary production involves mining bauxite deposits from the earth and performing electrometallurgical processing to ultimately form aluminum. Secondary production makes new aluminum from recycled scrap product. From there, different processing methods and alloys are used to form aluminum into its desired shape, strength and density.

Casting, or pouring molten aluminum into a mold, is used for high-volume parts requiring minimal machining, such as automotive parts. Sheet rolling is used to make long flat pieces of aluminum often used in transportation applications such as cars, planes and trains and also in consumer packaging for cans and foil. When strength and precision are needed, aluminum can be forged using compressions and dies to produce parts such as racecar wheels. Extrusion is used to form longer, thinner pieces of aluminum called rod, bar or wire, often used in the building industry.

Industries and Markets

For heavy industrial markets, aluminum brings a durable, strong, corrosion-resistant material that is also lightweight and easily formed. Transportation and aerospace companies can create innovative products without sacrificing safety or performance. In consumer applications, manufacturers value aluminum’s lightweight properties for reducing transportation costs and its visual appearance for creating appealing designs. Across all industries, aluminum’s infinite recyclability supports sustainable manufacturing and makes a positive contribution to the nation’s environmental goals.

Future Challenges and Opportunities

Although much progress has been made, the United States still has a tremendous opportunity to reduce its energy consumption and carbon footprint. And the pressure isn’t just coming from government and environmental groups. Consumers are increasingly looking to buy from companies with a strong sense of corporate responsibility and a solid environmental track record. Innovative companies, such as Ford and Apple, are turning to aluminum to help build products that delight customers, while reducing environmental impacts (see story below).

Ford F-150 goes on energy diet

The automotive industry continues to lead the way in aluminum-driven product innovation. In 2015, Ford released the all-aluminum-body F-150, shedding 700 pounds or approximately 15 percent of the vehicle’s body weight. This weight reduction improves fuel efficiency and increases safety, all without sacrificing performance.

Aluminum cans contain 3X the recycled content of glass or plastic.

Aluminum cans contain on average 73 percent recycled content -- more than 3X the amount in a glass or plastic bottle. Cans are also recycled at far higher rates than competing beverage container types.


September 17, 2021
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