WHAT IS ALUMINUM?
Aluminum is a silvery-white non-ferrous metal and the second most abundant metallic element in the Earth’s crust, following silicon. It is known for being lightweight, corrosion-resistant, a good conductor of electricity, and easy to shape, lending it a huge range of modern applications.
Aluminum was once more prestigious than gold and silver, back in the 1800s. At the time, the only known process for refining aluminum was too expensive to make it accessible to all but the wealthiest patrons – such as Napoleon III, the first president of the French Republic, who served dinner to his most VIP guests on aluminum plates (rumor has it, anyway). Following advancements in processing and refining techniques, the use of aluminum exploded across many industries – but its proliferation is fairly recent, compared to other metals.
Aluminum’s primary source is bauxite ore, though it is found in over 250 minerals. Australia, China, and Brazil are the top three producers of bauxite in the world. Bauxite is a clay-like mineral, and aluminum was often described as “silver from clay” in its early days. About four to five tons of bauxite are required to produce one ton of aluminum.
HOW IS ALUMINUM MADE?
Aluminum goes through electrolysis to break it away from the other elements it likes to bond with; aluminum does not exist in a pure form in nature, only in compounds with other elements. (Its true, pure origin? Fusion reactions in the hearts of stars!)
Aluminum can be rolled, extruded, and stamped, and can be worked whether hot or cold. It can be made into very, very thin foil sheets – we’re talking one-third the width of a human hair – which is something few other metals can boast. Finally, it’s an important ingredient in a number of alloys.
ARE ALUMINUM AND TIN THE SAME THING?
No. Tin and aluminum are two different elements on the periodic table, with different properties. However, many common items that are made out of aluminum today were once made of tin, such as food cans and foil. Even the original “tin” cans were tin-plated steel. The old vocabulary has stuck around – maybe because aluminum doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue!
And speaking of tongues: in British English, aluminum is spelled with an extra letter: aluminium (pronounced: alu-mini-um). Both spellings and pronunciations are valid.
WHAT IS ALUMINUM USED IN?
Phew – that would be a pretty big list. Examples include car and aerospace parts, food packaging, electronics and electrical components, wire, wheels, hardware, and construction materials. If it’s lightweight, non-magnetic, and easy to bend or dent, chances are good that it’s made of aluminum. (The other most likely answer is steel.)
Scientists continue to research and develop new ways to use aluminum oxides – the full extent of aluminum’s versatility is not yet fully explored.
IS SCRAP ALUMINUM VALUABLE?
Due to the range of applications, there is a huge and consistent demand for aluminum, making it one of the most commonly recycled non-ferrous metals. Because it is so lightweight, it can take a little extra time and effort to come up with a significant haul of aluminum to bring to a recycling center – there are about 32 beverage cans to a pound, and at average prices, it would take over 500 cans to walk away with $5.00. Bottoms up!
Why should i recycle aluminum?
Recycling aluminum takes only 5 percent of the energy needed to extract new aluminum from ore, according to the EPA. Electrolysis expends enormous amounts of energy, enough to power an apartment building for a month.
It takes as little as 60 days for a recycled aluminum can to be back on the shelf as a new can.