France's Emperor Napoleon III was an early proponent of aluminum. He hoped the
lightweight metal could be used to produce weapons and armor, giving his soldiers
an edge in battle. The emperor funded the work of Henri Sainte-Claire
Deville, who found a chemical
method for obtaining pure aluminum, but it was still a slow process. History tells the story that Napoleon III was
so frustrated with progress on aluminum he had much of France's stock melted
down and turned into cutlery. While he and his honored guests used aluminum
utensils, everyone else at the imperial dinner table made do with gold.
In 1884, when the
Washington Monument (U.S. national monument to first president, George
Washington) was completed, it was capped with a large casting of aluminum. The
capping ceremony and the dedication of the monument were given front-page
coverage in the nation's newspapers and the aluminum point (or apex) was
described in glowing detail.
At the time, a pound of
aluminum was worth US$16 (about US$425 in today's dollars). Two years later, a commercially viable method
for purifying bauxite ore and extracting aluminum was discovered by Austrian chemist Carl Joseph
Bayer. By 1889 the price had fallen to US$2
per pound. Within 10 years of commercial refining, it plummeted to just US 50
cents a pound (about US$13 in today’s dollars).
The modern production of aluminum metal is based on the Bayer and Hall–Héroult
The availability of aluminum at
the turn of the 20th century spurred on the age of flight and the Space Age. In 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright were struggling with the
design of their first aircraft, the one that would go on to make history. A collaborator suggested using an alloy of
aluminum and copper for the block of their four-cylinder engine. The 180-pound engine — 20 pounds lighter than
designed, thanks to the aluminum — exceeded expectations and let the Wright
Flyer take off. While the rest of the Wright
Brothers’ plane was made of wood and fabric, by the end of the 1920s aluminum made
an obvious choice for the fuselage of ever faster planes.
Aluminum became the
dominant metal in aviation. Recycling it
was cheaper and less time-consuming than refining it from ore. So, during World
War II Americans were encouraged to turn in their aluminum cooking pots and
even aluminum foil from gum wrappers and cigarette packs, to help with the war
NASA also turned to
aluminum alloys for Apollo for the same reason that they had been so
indispensable for airplanes — weight and strength. Aluminum and aluminum alloys continue to be
an important component in 21st century space craft – including Elon
Musk’s Spacex project.
And as for the ubiquitous aluminum
beverage can, that history dates to 1959.
American beer-maker Coors was the
first to use the aluminum drink can, both for its inert impact on the taste of
the beer and to promote a culture of recycling.
At first, cold beer in
aluminum cans got a lukewarm reception. However, by the mid-1960s, the new can
had really started to catch on, even among Coors' competitors.
Atlanta-based Novelis, which is today the world’s largest producer of sheet aluminum
for cans, says more than 60% of the aluminum it produces is recycled — and most
of that comes from and goes back into cans. According to Novelis, recycling aluminum
takes only about 5% of the energy used to produce new metal. Meaning the carbon footprint from a beverage
can is smaller than it would be if the aluminum was extracted from ore.