Aluminum comprises around 8% of Earth’s crust, making it the third most abundant element after oxygen and silicon. However, we seldom find it in raw form because it is so chemically reactive. Therefore, we must extract it from one of over 270 minerals it combines with. Life would not seem the same, without the lightweight, supple metal Valiant Exteriors use in soffits, fascia and gutters.
The construction industry uses aluminum widely for building windows, facades, and sidings, and it plays an essential role in aerospace. Despite its prevalence, no known life form uses aluminum metabolically, although animals and plants tolerate it well.
Early Production of Aluminum Metal
Early extraction methods date from 1760. However commercially efficient processing began only in 1854. The prices of aluminum plummeted 90% in the next five years although quality was unpredictable. Manufacturers have followed the improved Hall–Héroult process since the 1920’s. This purifies the conglomerate bauxite to yield alumina.
The new lightweight metal was immediately popular, and soon found uses in jewelry, eyeglass frames, optical instruments, tableware, and other everyday items. It became indispensable in aircraft manufacture because it combined so well with other metals. Earths first satellite had two aluminum half spheres. On a more sober note, landfill sites began to clog with beverage cans and kitchen foil.
Modern Aluminum Production and Recycling
Modern production is so energy consuming that some jokingly call the product ‘solid electricity’. China produces 53% of the global total, followed by Russia, Canada, India, and the UAE with 6%, 5.5%, 5% and 4.2% respectively. The global per capita stock of aluminum in society is 80 kg (180 lb) per person, although this is mostly concentrated in more-developed countries.
Aluminum recycling costs just 5% of producing new, because it is a relatively simple matter of melting it down and casting it in billet ingots. The waste is volatile and hence more difficult to manage. Much of it ends up as filler in concrete and asphalt.
Aluminum Production and the Environment
The material is harmless to people in normal conditions and it is generally non-toxic. However, it will continue to have a deep carbon footprint as long as we use electricity from combustion power stations to produce it. We should therefore make every effort to recycle this ‘wonder metal’ in any form, after it has reached the end of its life cycle. It is too precious to throw away.