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Aluminum: The elusive element

Aluminum – from the Latin word alumen or alum – the product of cosmic dust formed in supernovae and a building block of stars and planets.

This silvery-white metal is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, making up more than 8% of the Earth's core mass. But while aluminum is common, it is also very rare in native form. Plentiful yet elusive, its compounds are present in almost all rocks, vegetation and animals, yet it never occurs in nature in the metallic form as it is always chemically bound with other elements.

While aluminum has found its way into every facet of modern life, it was once obscure. Locked away in its ore without a known method for extraction, aluminum was more rare and precious than gold or silver until 1886 when two scientists discovered the electrolytic method for producing aluminum from aluminum oxide.

The first record of aluminum however dates back to thousands of years before the invention of the battery, or electricity, which provided the source of power for electrolysis. Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist and natural philosopher whose encyclopedia ‘Historica Naturalis’ attempted to document all known facts about the natural world, tells the story of a first century craftsman presenting the Roman Emperor Tiberius with a cup made of an unknown metal that looked like silver, but was too light to be silver. Pieces of aluminum, supposedly parts of a set of belt ornaments, were also found in a Jin dynasty tomb from somewhere between AD 265–420. Quite how these aluminum metals were produced remains a mystery to this day.

But with every age, aluminum came closer to revealing itself. Alchemists in the Middle Ages explored the transmutation of one substance into another – of turning lead into gold. The Renaissance brought with it the scientific revolution and the development of the scientific method. By the mid-1700s, German chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf announced he had found a new ‘earth’ called Alumina, and in 1807 the British scientist Sir Humphrey Davy established the existence of the element aluminum, naming it Alumium.

Throughout most of the 19th century, aluminum was a metal more esteemed than gold. The capstone of the Washington Monument, an 100-ounce pyramid of solid aluminum, was displayed at Tiffany’s in New York before being installed. It graced the fine china of Napoleon III, whose cutlery was made of aluminum rather than silver, and bars of this prized metal were displayed next to the French Crown Jewels at the 1855 Paris Exhibition. Its fortunes changed however in 1886 with the simultaneous yet independent discoveries of Charles M. Hall in America and Paul-Louis Toussaint Héroult in France, both of whom found a way to extract aluminum from aluminum oxide at scale, making it one of the most ubiquitous and inexpensive metals in the world.

Formerly the metal of nobles and kings, aluminum became a new industrial metal: the 'winged metal' that allowed the first ever plane to become airborne.

An enigma for millennia, in just over a century aluminum is the common metal with a most uncommon story.

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