Metal of the Month: Aluminum

This month, we explore one of the most recyclable and common metals found in Earth’s crust; ALUMINUM. Every month the iScrap App Team explores a metal and everything about it, from its origin, how it’s used, where it comes from, and how to scrap it. Want to learn more about other metals? You can always reference our metal guide and also read about other Metals of the Month Highlights. Want to learn even more? You can subscribe on YouTube to watch our videos, listen to podcasts, and tune in weekly for Weekly Live Reports.

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What is Aluminum?

Only the most common metal found on Earth. 🌎

Aluminum is a soft, lightweight, silvery metal that also happens to be the most common metal found in the Earth’s crust. Aluminum is also the most widely used metal after iron, probably because of its attractive physical properties: 

The History of Aluminum

The metal was first produced in 1825 by Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Oersted when producing an impure form of aluminum. Later on, Friedrich Wohler was given credit for isolating aluminum in 1827. The metal easily forms alloys with copper, zinc, magnesium, manganese, and silicon. Today, many materials referred to as aluminum are actually alloys, like aluminum foil, for example.

Where does Aluminum come from?

Like most other metals, aluminum is mined. It is a highly reactive metal; it doesn’t occur in nature in its pure form. Aluminum must first be mined, then chemically refined through the Bayer process to produce an intermediate product, aluminum oxide. It is then refined through the Hall-Heroult process into the pure metal by an electrolytic process. Almost all metallic aluminum is produced from the ore bauxite, the most common of over 270 minerals, where there are large deposits of bauxite in Australia, Brazil, Guinea, and Jamaica. Still, most ore mined today comes from Ghana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Russia, and Surinam.

Reserves will reportedly last for centuries. Although demand for aluminum is increasing rapidly, bauxite reserves, currently estimated at 40 to 75 billion metric tons, are projected to last for centuries. Guinea and Australia have the two largest proven reserves. In addition, there is a wealth of bauxite reserves in Vietnam. In November 2010, Vietnam’s prime minister announced the country’s bauxite reserves might total up to 11 billion tons.

Bauxite World Map

How easy is it to recycle Aluminum?

Aluminum is 100% recyclable without loss of its properties.

Major efforts to recycle aluminum began in the last 1960s when aluminum beverage cans become extremely popular. To recycle aluminum, the scrap must be melted; this requires only 5% of the energy used to produce aluminum from ore.  About 75 percent of all aluminum ever made is still in use, thanks to recycling, according to the Aluminum Association. As a result, the aluminum industry’s carbon footprint has decreased by almost 40% since 1995. Aluminum production is responsible for 0.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but certain technology is being developed to reduce this footprint. However, recycling efforts can be improved. For example, every three months, Americans throw away enough scrap aluminum to rebuild the entire U.S. commercial airplane fleet. Recycling that metal would save the energy equivalent of 16 million barrels of oil.

Fun Fact: According to the Aluminum Association, an aluminum can take as little as 60 days to return as a new can after recycling.

Where are common places Aluminum is found?

Aluminum is used in a variety of applications: 

  • Transportation (bikes, cars, planes) – The aluminum industry procured $71 billion a year – this is almost 1% of the U.S.’s GDP. So not only is recycling good for the planet, but it produces a high-value economic impact.
  • Packaging (cans, foil, etc.)
  • Construction (windows, doors, siding, building wire, ya know, extruded aluminum)
  • Cooking utensils
  • Street lighting poles
  • Sailing ship masts
  • Photographic equipment

Basically, it’s everywhere. But in particular, you will most likely find aluminum scrap at yard sales, town-wide trash days, on scrap cars, in your own kitchen, and plenty of other places.

 

Suggested Reading: Where Can I Find Scrap Metal?

 

What are the most common types of Aluminum?

 

Tips for making the most money with your aluminum scrap

      • Identify that it is actually aluminum with a magnet
        • Spark test – if it sparks, probably stainless steel; if not, it’s aluminum
      • Sorting, of course, and calling your yard to see how they categorize their aluminum scrap
      • Clean your dirty aluminum scrap – when possible, cut or remove the plastic, metal, residue, or whatever is making your aluminum scrap “dirty.” Although, you need to determine when it’s not worth your time to clean or to come to the conclusion that you don’t have the right equipment.
      • Strip your aluminum wire to make it clean

Key Trends for Aluminum Moving Forward

Aluminum In China 

The Chinese General Administration of Customs recorded a new high for aluminum imports in March 2021. Imports went up 40.8% from February 2021; the quarterly total marked an increase of 118.8% from the same period in 2020. China has been on an aluminum importing spree since July 2020. We talk a lot about how China has been hoarding metals, and this trend seems like it will persist for the foreseeable future. 

Energy Transition

The move towards green is obviously going to affect copper prices in the coming years, but it theoretically should affect aluminum. Electric vehicle production is rising from all manufacturers, and aluminum is still a major component in cars, whether gas-powered or not. So we should expect to see a push in aluminum prices in addition to copper within the next few years.

Aluminum Fun Facts:

  • In the nineteenth century, aluminum was as expensive as silver. For example, the Washington Monument, dedicated in 1884, has a 100-ounce aluminum capstone, which was the largest single piece of aluminum cast.
  • Once, more precious than gold and silver: Before discovering the Bayer and Hall–Héroult processes, aluminum was more expensive than gold or silver. Napoleon III served state dinners on aluminum plates.
  • Aluminum helped pioneer flight: The Wright brothers used aluminum to build key parts of their biplane’s engine because no manufacturer could provide an engine light enough with the needed horsepower.
  • The lifespan of an aluminum can: A can is recycled repeatedly in a true closed loop. Unopened aluminum cans are solid, despite being so thin. Four six-packs of cans can support the weight of a 2-ton vehicle!
  • Recycling efforts can be improved: Every three months, Americans throw away enough scrap aluminum to rebuild the entire U.S. commercial airplane fleet. Recycling that metal would save the energy equivalent of 16 million barrels of oil.
  • Research is underway to produce an aluminum-air battery projected to run an electric car for 1,000 miles.
  • Nanoparticle research is predicted to create breakthroughs in solar energy cell and nano-circuitry design. In addition, NASA’s new Orion spacecraft will use an aluminum alloy to form its primary structure, and transparent aluminum is advancing military armor protection.
  • Aluminum is used in hundreds of industries, especially in transportation, aerospace, packaging, building, and construction. The industry directly creates more than 155,000 jobs and is adding more yearly.
  • Discarding aluminum can waste as much energy as powering a laptop computer for 11 hours or a television for 4 hours.
  • The aluminum industry pays more than $800 million for recycled material, and every minute an average of 113,000 aluminum cans are recycled.
  • About 75% of all aluminum ever made is still in use, thanks to recycling, according to the Aluminum Association.


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