August 14, 2022

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From aspirin to space

From aspirin to space

It’s hard to look around these days and not see anything made of aluminum. This substance is the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust (which makes up 7.3%), the most abundant and, by far, the most widely used type of non-ferrous metal for industrial purposes.

We encounter it in everyday life in countless forms. Doors, windows, enclosures, airplanes, cars, bicycles, outdoor furniture, cans, quads, cables, computers, tennis rackets or everyday “silver” paper for food packaging are made of aluminum. They also contain this substance from aspirin and antacids to ruby, emerald and natural sapphire. Even its sulfur, a salt, is used to purify water and produce writing paper.


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Antonio Orte

Although ubiquitous, aluminum was not isolated or discovered in its pure form until relatively recently. It was already used, without knowing it, in ancient Mesopotamia, where containers prized for their preservative properties were designed with their rich clay. In the case of Babylon, as well as in Egypt from the pharaohs, it was used in the preparation of medicines and dyes by incorporating alum. However, it was only discovered as a substance in its own right two centuries ago.

son of electricity

In the eighteenth century, French scientists, including Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, uncovered an as-yet-unidentified metal oxide. The subsequent discovery of aluminum is consistent with notable researchers from other countries: Britain’s Humphry Davy and Denmark’s Hans Christian Ørsted, both of whom are remembered for their pioneering studies in electrochemistry and electromagnetism.

Specifically, thanks to the then-new technique of electrolysis (a method of electrically separating components of a substance), in 1808 Davy was able to separate the metal from its dross seconds before it was combined with iron. Despite the brevity of this experience, word suggested Aluminium to name his new discovery, one among many he made (he also called it chlorine).

Humphrey Davy's photo.

Humphrey Davy’s photo.

public domain

Later, in 1825, Oersted achieved a permanent result with the same procedure. It produced stable aluminum, although its quality still left much to be desired.

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ally of progress

The Wright brothers would not have been able to fly, nor would robotic flight without aluminum. His first successful flight through the air, in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, was due to the replacement of steel parts with other parts of new metal. This one was as strong as the other (depending on the alloy), but three times lighter.

Aluminum maintains its leading role in the commercial aviation industry: today 80% of aircraft are made of this metal. In addition, it revolutionized space exploration: nine out of ten shuttle parts he launched Container Made of this element.

Meanwhile, a mineral was found in France that would become the most generous source of aluminum to this day. Named bauxite after the small Provençal village of Les Baux, where it was discovered in 1821, about half of this raw material was alumina oxide, an oxide from which aluminum can be refined. But there is still a long way to go to get half a ton of alumina from a ton of bauxite to produce a quarter of a ton of aluminum, as it is today.

This was taken care of by other scientists who worked independently of each other. In the middle of the 19th century, German Friedrich Wöller improved the Ørsted process and demonstrated the amazing lightness of metal. However, the Frenchman Henri Saint Clair Deville got the credit for turning the improved material into a social phenomenon. Deville manufactured the first aluminum that became commercially viable, replacing the cheaper potassium that Fuller uses in amalgam.

From precious to everyday

Deville conducted his tests at a pilot plant on the outskirts of Paris that he financed himself. Napoleon IIIVery interested in this formidable component of the renewal of the arsenal of its armed forces.

The platform the Emperor had chosen to deliver this advancement couldn’t be more exciting. It was the Universal Exposition of 1855, the same exhibition that dedicated Bordeaux wines throughout the world. With over five million visitors, the event has made pure aluminum – displayed in no less ingots alongside its crown jewels – the latest trend in the industry.

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bauxite rocks.

bauxite rocks.

Francisco Ruiz Contreras / CC BY-SA 3.0

However, it was still a prohibited substance. Indeed, Napoleon III had consulted his goldsmiths about the possibility of making cutlery with it to surprise his guests at banquets. After all, aluminum was still worth more than silver, gold, or platinum. Hence, it was produced in small portions and presented as a precious metal.

increasingly affordable

This situation began to change in the decade following the fair, when the first large-scale commercial dynamics made it possible to generate huge amounts of electricity at low cost. The main obstacle to the mass industrialization of aluminium was thus eliminated. This was demonstrated separately, in 1886, by two inventors in their twenties, Charles Martin Hall in the United States and Paul Herault in France.

Meanwhile, the element has become a symbol of progress, being used as the definitive story on the obelisk in Washington and, soon after, on a statue of the Greek god Anteros standing above the central fountain of Piccadilly Circus, in the heart of London.

Piccadilly is one of the first statues to be cast from aluminum.

One of the first statues to be cast from aluminum in 1893, is the statue of Antrios located in Piccadilly Circus, London.

third parties

With more electrical energy available at a lower cost, Hall and Héroult were able to light a new electrolysis process that made it possible to obtain the metal at an exorbitant price. Two years later, the Austrian Karl Josef Baer took another giant step by devising a method, also very cheap, for extracting alumina from bauxite.

Both advances triggered bubble of aluminium. Today, the Bayer chemical process remains the standard for refining ore into oxide, which then, with Hall-Héroult electrolysis, became the most manufactured metal on the planet since the discovery of prehistoric iron.

As a result of this phenomenon, the price of aluminum fell as early as 1890, making it more affordable. That year its cost was 80% less than when the Napoleon III Exposition took place. Five years later, it was already so cheap that it began to be used in construction. However, its ultimate success occurred in the 20th century.

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aluminum horn

The construction and pharmaceutical or food sectors and innovative industries such as the automotive, aerospace or aviation industries demand aluminum. The massive increase in its production increasingly reduced its monetary value until it became fully democratic. Thus, about seven thousand tons of aluminum were manufactured in 1900, a hundred times more at the beginning of the Second World War, and from the following decade to the present, its production has been about thirty million tons per year.

This triumphant increase explains why it has been the most widely used metal after steel since the mid-20th century, or why the production of all non-ferrous metals together has nearly doubled. Despite its recent age as an industrial material, few elements are as essential today as aluminum.

Versatile in the kitchen

The food industry, the third largest consumer of aluminum – after construction and transportation – has found a real gold mine in it. Tasteless and odorless, a good preservative and insulator, water-resistant to 0.007 mm thick and easily moldable, it has made possible the manufacture of “silver” paper since 1910 and quartets, cans or beverage bottles since the 1960s. Unfortunately, potentially toxic kitchen utensils also appeared at this time.

In the 1980s, the safety of aluminum kitchen utensils began to be questioned, as this metal could pose serious health risks if swallowed, inhaled, or come into contact with the skin in high concentrations. It can cause anything from dementia to severe tremors, according to some studies.

The good news is that elevated levels of aluminum, the only danger (beyond usual exposure), have been detected only in specific contexts. For example, in air and water in mines and refineries for this substance, where special precautions are taken.

This text is part of an article published in issue 532 of the magazine history and life. Do you have anything to contribute? Write to [email protected]