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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.