June 12, 2014

A History of Aluminum: from fancy metal of elites, to lousy investment

It is no secret that the Gator family loves aluminum. So when we found a fellow aluminum lover, we asked him to share his knowledge on our favorite metal with our readers. The content below is excerpted and used with permission from “Today I Found Out.” Read the fascinating full article HERE.

Aluminum is one of the most common elements on Earth.  So how did aluminum once cost more than gold?

The simple answer is that although aluminum makes up about 8% of the Earth’s crust, it has never been known to occur in its metallic form anywhere on Earth. Instead, aluminum appears mainly as a chemical compound across the globe, for example inside potassium aluminum sulfate.

Before aluminum was discovered, or even theorized, so called “alum compounds,” like potassium aluminum sulfate, have been used extensively since antiquity for everything from leather tanning to fire-proofing. In fact, potassium aluminum sulfate (colloquially known as potassium alum) is still used today in things like aftershave and baking powder and most awesomely of all, in its crystal state it can be used as a deodorant.

Now, at first glance it would seem like these chemical compounds are referred to as “alum” because they contain aluminum, but this isn’t the case. The word “alum” is the colloquial name given to a wide range of compounds that don’t necessarily include aluminum, for example chromium potassium sulfate which is commonly shortened to chrome alum. The word aluminum itself is a derivative of the word “alum,” not the other way around.

Aluminum as we know it today was first created in a lab by Hans Christian Oersted by heating aluminum chloride with potassium amalgam in 1825. The flecks of metal produced using this method were so small and impure that a proper analysis of the metal was impossible.

In 1854, Henri Sainte-Claire Deville developed a way of producing the metal on a much larger scale with the use of sodium, allowing, for the first time in history, kilograms of the metal to be produced at a time.

A year later, in 1855, aluminum was displayed at the “Exposition Universelle,” a huge French exhibition organized at the bequest of French emperor Napoleon III. Almost immediately after the exhibition, demand for this magical metal sky-rocketed. Its shininess combined with its almost ghostly lightness compared to other metals made it an ideal metal for jewelry and it wasn’t long until the French elite were wearing broaches and buttons made of the aluminum.

This passing fancy that the upper echelons of society had with aluminum infuriated inventor Deville to no end because he felt that the metal had significant practical applications to benefit the masses, not just to be used as a curiosity to be flaunted by the elite.

One person who shared Deville’s vision was Emperor Napoleon III. Napoleon had hoped that this new metal could be used to produce lightweight weapons and armor for his army. Although a few helmets were produced, the sheer cost of refining the metal shelved the plan indefinitely.

Frustrated, Napoleon III had his supply of aluminum melted down and pressed into cutlery. As the oft-repeated story goes, Napoleon III was rumored to have eaten off of aluminum plates while his guests had to make do with ones made of gold. Whether that story is true or not, at this point aluminum really was harder to get hold of than gold and the price reflected that, despite its prevalence in the Earth compared to gold.

All of that changed in 1886 when it was discovered that you could easily obtain oodles of aluminum using electrolysis.

Two years after this, it was discovered that aluminum oxide could be made very cheaply from bauxite. As a result of both of these things, the price of aluminum plummeted by 80% overnight. In a few short years, aluminum went from being literally the most expensive metal on Earth to one of the cheapest. 

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