Corkey Trivia: Precious Aluminum
Who would have thought that at one time our aluminum beer can could have been worth its weight in gold. Aluminum was only discovered in 1825 despite the fact that aluminum is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust.
It is very rare in its free form and in the 1800s it was considered a precious metal. At one time, it was as scarce as silver. In the 1800s aluminum jewelry sold for the same price as platinum jewelry. A lump of aluminum occupied a place of honor next to the crown jewels at the Paris Exposition of 1855. In 1884, the aluminum cap that was made for the Washington Monument was exhibited in the window of a Fifth Avenue jeweler, in New York City. Napoleon III entertained guests at his dining table with a set of aluminum forks. In 1852 aluminum sold for $545 a pound. Today it sells for about a dollar a pound.
How did this drastic drop in price come to be? In the spring of 1883, Prof. Frank Jewett of Oberlin College in Ohio said to the students in his chemistry class, “If any of you can extract aluminum in commercial quantities,” he said with a smile, “You are sure of a fortune.” A skinny young student, by the name of Charles Martin Hall, sitting in one of the front rows nudged the guy sitting next to him and whispered, “I’m going after that metal!” Three years later, on February 23, 1886, he figured out the commercial process we use today. Two months later Paul Heroult, in Gentilly, France figured out the same process independently. Thus was created the Hall-Heroult process. Charles Hall immediately patented his invention and in 1888 teamed up with financier Alfred E. Hunt to start the Pittsburgh Reduction Company known today as the Aluminum Company of America(ALCOA). By 1914, Charles Hall had brought the cost of aluminum down to 18 cents a pound, so it was no longer considered a precious metal.
Aluminum is produced from bauxite ore which is named after the French village of Les Baux where it was first discovered. An electrolytic process is used in which electricity is passed through a liquid solution causing the aluminum to precipitate out of the solution. The amount of electricity used to create one pound of aluminum would keep a forty watt lamp lit continuously for twelve and a half days. So it takes a substantial amount of energy to make aluminum from rocks. Making cans from bauxite ore(rock) uses 229 BTUs of energy while making cans from recycled aluminum uses only 8 BTUs of energy. The aluminum can recycling process saves 95% of the energy needed to produce aluminum from rocks. So using recycled aluminum is really energy efficient. Today, the average aluminum can contains about 40% recycled aluminum.
Aluminum beer cans have several advantages over steel beer cans. They weigh less than half as much as steel cans; so a six pack of aluminum cans is noticeably lighter than a six pack of steel cans. Aluminum allows the beer to chill faster(a definite plus). Aluminum cans are way more resistant to rust than almost all other industrial metals. They accept flashy colors directly on its surface, so no need for the glued-on paper label which eventually slides off in your cooler and makes the water gummy. Aluminum is one of the most recyclable materials around. Recycled aluminum is very ecologically friendly, very “green”. (That’s one of the reasons why Maui Brewing Company [which you can find at The Wine Stop] uses aluminum cans). And most impressive of all, it is easier to crush, in one bare hand, an aluminum beer can rather than a steel one. All you need is an empty can. I think I’ll start working on that. Cheers!