The Future of Aluminum

Aluminum's Shiny, Metallic History
1746: Johann Heinrich Pott prepares alumina from alum.
1825: Hans Christian Oersted produces the first aluminum.
1886: Charles Martin Hall and Paul L. T. Heroult both use electrolysis to produce aluminum.
1888: Hall and his partners form what is now the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa).
1914: Aluminum demand soars during World War I.
1947: Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil hits the shelves.
1963: Coors introduces the first aluminum beverage can.
1968: The first U.S. can-recycling program begins.
2020: The International Aluminum Institute projects that the aluminum industry will be carbon neutral.

­Primary production of aluminum requires tremendous energy. It also produces greenhouse gases that affect global warming. According to the International Aluminum Institute, manufacturing new stocks of aluminum releases 1 percent of the global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. A top industry priority is to decrease these emissions through reduction measures, increased recycling and the use of aluminum in vehicles, aircraft, watercraft and trains. In fact, using lightweight aluminum components in vehicles is one of the most significant advances in automotive design and manufacturing. Every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of heavier material that is replaced by aluminum results in the elimination of 22 kilograms (44 pounds) of carbon dioxide over the lifetime of the vehicle [source: International Aluminum Institute].

Another promising application is the use of aluminum in fuel-cell-powered cars. Researchers at Purdue University recently discovered that aluminum could be used to produce hydrogen fuel efficiently. The process begins with aluminum pellets, which are mixed into liquid gallium to produce liquid aluminum-gallium. When ­water is added, the aluminum reacts with the oxygen to form a gel. Hydrogen gas, which can be collected and used to power a fuel cell, is also produced.

­Innovations such as these will increase the demand for aluminum. And even though the metal is relatively young, it is one of the most important in the history of human civilization. When the archaeologists and anthropologists of tomorrow reflect on the society of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, they could very likely label it the Aluminum Age, placing it next to the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages as one of the most significant periods in human cultural development.