Aluminium, The History, Discovery and Development as a Product

Chemical Formula

Al

Topics Covered

Background

History of Discovery

1807

1825

1845

1854

1886

1888

The Development of Aluminium as a Product

Background

It is only 160 years since the element aluminium was discovered and only 100 years since a viable production process was established, and today more aluminium is produced each year than all other non-ferrous metals combined.

Aluminium is the third most abundant element - comprising some 8 percent of the earth's crust. So, why was it not discovered sooner? The main reason is that aluminium never occurs naturally in metallic form. Aluminium is found in most rocks, clay, soil and vegetation combined with oxygen and other elements.

Aluminium bearing compounds have been used by man from the earliest times, pottery was made from clays rich in hydrated silicate of aluminium. Ancient Middle Eastern civilisations used aluminium salts for the preparation of dyes and medicines: they are used to this day in indigestion tablets and toothpaste. At one point in history, aluminium was such a valuable commodity that rulers and the wealthy preferred impressing their guests with plates and cutlery made from aluminium rather than gold.

History of Discovery

1807

The English chemist Sir Humphrey Davy underlined the existence of the element arguing that "alum" was the salt of an unknown metal which he said should be called ‘alumium’. The name was respelt as the more pleasant sounding ‘aluminium’ by later scientists. Davy tried unsuccessfully to produce aluminium by electrolysing a fused mixture of aluminium oxide and potash.

1825

Following Davy’s work the Danish physicist H.C. Oersted managed to produce the first nodules of aluminium by heating potassium amalgam with aluminium.

1845

Friedrich Wöhler in Germany established many of the metal’s properties, including the remarkable lightness. It was the discovery of this property that truly excited researchers and paved the way for more generous development funding.

1854

The Frenchman Henri Sainte-Claire Deville developed a reduction process using sodium which, with further refinement by others, allowed the production of high cost metal in limited quantities and his process was copied throughout Europe. Scientists were now in the position to produce kilograms rather than mere grams - an important step towards the industrial use of aluminium.

1886

The smelting process that is still used today was discovered almost simultaneously but independently in the United States and France. Working in a woodshed in Ohio, Charles Martin Hall made the same discovery that metallurgist Paul Lois Toussaint Héroult made in a makeshift laboratory in Gentilly: both men dissolved aluminium oxide in molten cryolite and then extracted the aluminium by electrolysis.

Hall filed patents in the USA and Héroult in France but Hall was eventually credited with being the earlier inventor due to the slightly earlier patent application that he made.

1888

The success of the Hall/Héroult process was advanced when Karl Bayer, an Austrian, invented an improved process for making aluminium oxide from bauxite. These inventions sealed the fate of aluminium – by 1890 the cost of aluminium had tumbled some 80 percent from Deville’s prices. The metal was now a commercial commodity, how would it be used?

The Development of Aluminium as a Product

The discovery, successful extraction and the first commercial applications of aluminium all took place in the 19th Century. The enthusiasm for new materials and their possible uses was immense. The general urge to discover did not only affect metals - the first organic plastics were made in the 1870’s. Rubber and plywood industries were also established during the same period.

The general public was also intrigued. Charles Dickens (Household Words, Dec. 13th 1856) commenting on Deville’s initial success wrote: "Aluminium may probably send tin to the right about face, drive copper saucepans into penal servitude, and blow up German-silver sky-high into nothing".

When Jules Verne wrote "From the Earth to the Moon" (1865) about the fictitious first attempt to send man to the moon, the material he chose to "build" his space capsule was aluminium - the one material with the lightness and strength for such a project.

Some 15 years later J.W. Richards wrote in his standard work "Aluminium" that: "It has been well said that if the problem of aerial flight is ever to be solved, aluminium will be the chief agent in its solution".

Despite all the excitement and scientific successes, the pioneers quickly found that, once viable production was established, selling the output was very difficult indeed. Markets did not exist and had to be developed from scratch and the manufacturing industry, used to more traditional metals, needed to acquire specific skills to successfully fabricate aluminium end products. During the period between 1855 and 1900 many aluminium manufacturing businesses were established, most prospered briefly and rapidly waned. Only a select few survived into the 20th Century.

The first target markets involved the substitution of copper, brass and bronze. Despite the initial difficulties, world production of aluminium soared from less than 200 tonnes in 1885 to approximately 22 million tonnes in 1998 - plus some 5 million tonnes of recycled aluminium. The prophecies of Dickens, Verne and Richards have come true!

Source: The European Aluminium Association.

For more information on this source please visit The European Aluminium Association.

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