Aluminum is the third most abundant element that comprises about 8 percent of the earth’s crust. Unlike other metals that occur naturally in metallic forms, aluminum is naturally found in most rocks, vegetation, and clay soil combined with oxygen and other elements.
Compounds bearing aluminum have been used from the earliest times. For example, ancient Middle Eastern civilizations utilized aluminum salts to prepare dyes and medicines- a salt used today in the preparation of toothpaste and indigestion tablets. A clay soil rich in hydrated aluminum silicate was used in pottery. At one point in history, aluminum was used as a valuable commodity in making plates and cutlery owned by wealthy rulers to impress their guests.
History of Discovery
In 1807, the English chemist Sir Humphrey Davy identified the element “alum,” a salt of an unknown metal. He renamed it “aluminum.” Davy attempted to produce the element in a laboratory by electrolyzing a fused mixture of potash and aluminum oxide, but the experiment was unsuccessful.
In 1825, the Danish physicist H.C. Oersted advanced Davy’s work and managed to produce aluminum nodules by combining potassium amalgam with aluminum in the presence of heat.
In 1845, the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler established several metal properties, such as the metal’s remarkable strength and lightness. This discovery drew the attention of most scientists and paved the way for more discoveries of the element.
In 1854, Frenchman Henri Deville successfully developed a reduction process using sodium metal, a process that led to the production of high-cost metal. The process was borrowed by scientists throughout Europe within a short span. Through slight advancements, scientists produced kilograms of the elements rather than mere grams. This process marked an important step in the industrial use of aluminum.
Later in 1886, a smelting process was discovered almost simultaneously but independently by the American chemist Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Lois Toussaint Héroult. Both scientists dissolved aluminum oxide in molten cryolite and extracted pure aluminum by electrolysis.
Hall and Héroult’s science was advanced by an Austrian scientist, Karl Bayer, in 1888. Bayer improved the electrolysis process and successfully extracted aluminum from bauxite. This extraction sealed aluminum’s fate, and by the 1890s, the metal became a commercial commodity.
The Development of Aluminum as a Commercial Product
The discovery, first successful extraction, and commercial applications of pure aluminum began in the 19th Century. The widespread popularity and application of the element seen by then can be attributed to the lightness and strong properties of the metal and the enthusiasm for new metallic materials. When French novelist Jules Verne was asked for his thoughts on the fictitious first attempt to travel to the moon in 1865, he proposed that the space capsule should be made of aluminum due to the metal’s lightweight and unmatched strength.
Despite the successful scientific extraction of aluminum, the market was not readily available until 1900, when most aluminum manufacturing businesses were established and started gaining popularity. This venture targeted substituting brass, copper, and bronze. Today, aluminum has broad application, making the prophecies of Verne, Dickens, and Richards come true!
What are the Properties and Uses of Aluminum?
Due to low density, excellent corrosion resistance, non-toxicity, and malleability, aluminum is currently used in the manufacture of:
- High-quality window systems, kitchen utensils, cans, and beer kegs.
- Aluminum is combined with other metals such as manganese, silicon, copper, and magnesium to make very strong and light alloys used in constructing airplane parts and other aerospace.
- Aluminum is a good conductor of heat and electricity. It is used in the manufacture of electrical transmission lines.
- Aluminum forms a highly reflective coating for both heat and light when evaporated in a vacuum.
There are so many ways that aluminum is used today.