Aluminum: A paradox in an element

Chinese worker moves the aluminum pipes at the Qinghai Guoxin Aluminium Industry Incorporated Company workshop on August 20, 2010 in Xining of Qinghai Province, China. 

Most people don’t use a microscope to measure the global economy but that’s exactly what the BBC’s Justin Rowlatt is doing in his new series about chemical elements, "Elementary Business."

The next element on his chart is aluminum (or aluminium to some). Rowlatt gives some paradoxical ways to describe the element, from grey and dull and stable to light, versatile, and flexible. And perhaps most importantly -- it’s a very hard substance that can be used for everything from tin foil to soda-pop cans to cars.

Unlike some of the other elements Rowlatt’s explored in his series, we might actually have enough of it. Very soon, it will be possible to recycle 85 percent of the aluminum that’s produced. It only takes about 60 days to recycle one soda-pop can into another soda-pop can.

"It’s one of the few things you can say ‘well actually one day, we may have enough of, we may not need to dig for it anymore’” says Rowlatt. 

About the author

Justin Rowlatt is the host of Business Daily from the BBC World Service
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Good program … but … recycling is for the end product that is, in the case of "drinks cans," maybe only 40% of the original metal that started the process. And, we'll always need "virgin" metal to add to the recycled mix to insure the right quality. And, you can't recycle the energy consumed in production. We'll be producing aluminum for some time. Recycling helps but is not a closed loop process. Using less will be one solution! Another solution is to improve production methodologies to increase the yield in the conversion of input to finished product.

I would love to share all of the reports in the "Elements" series with my students, but the tags for the reports are weak and inconsistent. How about adding a tag for the series (e.g. BBC Elements)?


The story's stuck in real time.

Ain't just Coke cans anymore. With Ford's move to Al as a primary material for pickups (followed, inevitably, by other auto manufacturers,) demand will spike by millions of tons. No surprise, Detroit is already hoarding and hedging futures.

Don't close your bauxite mine.


Hi Kai,
We'll continue to mine bauxite to refine it to make aluminum trihydrate (ATH). ATH is the precursor to aluminum metal, with over 80% of ATH worldwide dedicated to the production of aluminum metal. The remainder ATH is used in flame retardants and in the production of pseudoboehmite and alumina. The former is a hydrated form of alumina; the latter is aluminum oxide. It gets a bit more complicated, but this is the story in a nutshell. If recycled aluminum metal indeed replaces aluminum from smelters, this would leave more bauxite available for the production of aluminas. Aluminas and pseudoboehmites are used as supports for catalysts that can be found anywhere from oil refineries, process catalysts and emission catalysts.
Thank you for the opportunity to add my comment and for your great show.
Best Regards,

Hi Kai, the one most important point that got lost in your very educational & entertaining conversation with Justin Rowlatt is : who discovered Aluminium, and how did he/she spell it? Surely, we need to honour the discoverer - yes?

When the "discoverer" isn't an Anglophone, the naming and spelling rights in English don't really apply.
Regardless of whom you credit for the discovery of aluminum (German chemist Andreas Marggraf or Danish chemist Hans Christian Ørsted), the Latin "alumen" is neither English nor American.
The influential British chemist Humphry Davy was the first to suggest use of the name "aluminum" but others were persuaded to use the suffix "ium" to conform with other elemental nomenclatures like sodium, calcium, chromium, etc. After a period of use in the U.S., the American Chemical Society opted to revert to the original term in the early 20th century.

A further note about that: My dad found it impossible to wrap his tongue around "aluminum," so was quite happy referring to it with the British usage... so we became a dual-use household until the day he died.

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