A man, a mission, a metal……and the rest is history
ARLINGTON, Va., One hundred and twenty-five years ago this month, Charles Martin Hall discovered a method by which to produce aluminum commercially—transforming it from a precious metal to an everyday material. It was a development that would change the course of human history.
Aluminum would make possible the wonders of commercial aviation and space exploration. It would revolutionize food and beverage packaging and—with the advent of aluminum windows, curtainwall, and siding—transform the modern construction industry. Not to mention how it helps save tailpipe emissions through its use in light-weighting cars and trucks.
Even before Hall’s discovery, savvy minds knew of aluminum’s great potential. Hall’s Oberlin College Chemistry Professor, Frank Jewett, for one, told his students: “Any person who discovers a process by which aluminum can be made on a commercial scale will bless humanity and make a fortune for himself.”
Thusly encouraged, Hall would set about a series of experiments in a woodshed behind his parents’ rural Ohio house—culminating in his discovery nine months after graduation of the electrolytic reduction method for producing primary aluminum.
By passing an electric current through a carbon crucible filled with a cryolite bath containing alumina—producing a congealed mass that contained pure aluminum within—the precocious 22-year-old had achieved what had eluded scientists for decades. That same process is used to this day by aluminum companies to produce aluminum from ore.
Hall’s work had only begun, however. He would patent the process, found a company—the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (precursor to today’s Alcoa)—and manufacture aluminum cookware to help establish a nascent market for the metal.
Charles Martin Hall: metallurgist, entrepreneur, marketer.
Hall’s enterprising spirit lives on in today’s aluminum industry. Aluminum companies continue to develop new alloys with characteristics that advance manufacturers’ product designs. In many cases, they work with manufacturers to help engineer technologically advanced products that benefit society. To wit—Alcoa has partnered with Audi to create the innovative Audi Space Frame, which underpins its A8 flagship; Novelis has worked with Jaguar to develop the monocoque aluminum body for its XJ sedan; and Hydro Aluminum engineered the lightweight chassis that frames the Lotus Elise and the Tesla Roadster.
The qualities that make aluminum sought-after as a product material include its high strength-to-weight ratio, its resistance to corrosion, durability, conductivity, formability, and—not the least—its recyclability.
These qualities give it wide applicability across a range of consumer products, including:
“Aluminum’s utility across a wide swath of product applications is, by now, well understood by the American consumer,” said Aluminum Association President Steve Larkin. “What consumers may not be aware of are the sustainable characteristics of this remarkable metal. In particular, its light weight, durability, and recyclability make it a crucial part of the solution to our society’s growing concerns over the environment, energy security, and resource management.”
“Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, and recycling aluminum uses only 5 percent of the energy required to produce the metal from virgin ore,” Larkin continued. “Almost three-quarters of all aluminum ever manufactured is still in use. Think about that for a minute. If that’s not the very definition of sustainability, then I don’t know what is,” he added.
This month, the aluminum industry celebrates the ambition and drive of one man to make a precious metal available to the masses. Every day—with the “ping” of an aluminum baseball bat or the “pop” of the top of a beverage can—consumers share in that celebration.
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The Aluminum Association, based in Arlington, Virginia, works globally to aggressively promote aluminum as the most sustainable and recyclable automotive, packaging and construction material in today’s market. The Association represents U.S. and foreign-based primary producers of aluminum, aluminum recyclers and producers of fabricated products, as well as industry suppliers. Member companies operate more than 200 plants in the United States, with many conducting business worldwide.