50 Moments

The International Aluminium Institute turned 50 in April 2022. One of the ways we will mark this milestone is to identify 50 key moments in the development of today’s modern aluminium industry.

You can help by nominating moments that have been pivotal in the history of aluminium. We have provided some examples below that showcase aspects such as: innovation in the industry, collaboration, products, sustainability, progress, relevance in modern society, etc.

If you have a Moment to contribute, please email Sarah Novell – novell@international-aluminium.org.

Aluminium – a new metal was identified by the English chemist Humphry Davy around 1807-1808 and named after ‘alum’ (‘alumen’ in Latin). Davy showed that alumina could be decomposed in an electric arc and reduced to an aluminium-iron alloy. However, he could not isolate the aluminium from the alloy. In 1854, a French chemist, Henri Deville, invented a commercial process for extracting aluminium from bauxite. The complexity of the extraction process made it a precious metal. Napoleon III first used aluminium in his household utensils.

The ore was discovered by geologist Pierre Berthier, in France. The rock was named bauxite after Les Baux, France, the area where it was found.

Danish physician Hans Christian Oersted first extracted the metal by the electrolysis process.

Aluminium’s high electrical conductivity makes it suitable for electrical engineering. It is lighter and cheaper than copper, making it more popular for overhead power lines. The first aluminium wires were used around 1880 in Chicago, USA when the train station head replaced several hundred meters of outdoor copper wires with aluminium since he noticed that copper wires were corroding due to locomotive smoke. Since then aluminium usage has grown manifold in the electrical sector.

Completed in December 19884, the Washington Monument featured a top made of a 9-inch aluminium pyramid. The structure was made of 100-ounces of solid aluminium that protected the monument from lightning. The pyramid was the largest piece of aluminium to be used anywhere during that time.

In 1886, American chemists Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Héroult, both 22 years old, invented the Hall–Héroult process. Before this discovery, aluminium was a precious metal. The Hall–Héroult invention brought aluminium into large-scale production and the race for a commercially viable route for aluminium won.

Developed by Carl Josef Bayer in 1888, the Bayer Process is the principal industrial and most economical means of refining bauxite to produce alumina. It involves four steps viz. digestion, clarification, precipitation, and calcination. The process used today is practically the same as when it was discovered one hundred years ago and is used to produce nearly all the world’s alumina supply.

At almost two and a half metres high, the Eros aluminium statue of Anteros, an Ancient Greek god, in Piccadilly Circus, London became the first large piece of art made from aluminium.

Aluminium’s high electrical conductivity makes it suitable for electrical enThe Wright Brothers made the first successful flight of The Wright Flyer in 1903 – seeing the start of the development of the aircraft industry being highly dependent on aluminium alloys. The US Army became the first American organisation to express interest in the aircraft developments of the Wright brothers. The Wright Military Flyer was sold to the US Army Signal Corps in July 1909 and became the world’s first military aircraft. This marked the beginning of the military aircraft industry being highly dependent on high strength aluminium alloys.

Alfred Wilm, a German metallurgist, extracted an aluminium alloy just as lightweight, but significantly harder, more durable and elastic. It was called duralumin and contained copper, manganese and magnesium.

Robert Victor Neher took out a patent for the continuous rolling process and opened the first aluminium rolling plant in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland.

The Swiss chocolate Toblerone became the first product to use aluminium foil in 1911. To this day, Toblerone still uses aluminium foil for its products.

In 1912, Allan Loughead established the Lockheed Aircraft Co., which created the first all-aluminium commercial aeroplane – the L-10 Electra, opening the doors to many other larger aircraft made of aluminium. The Constellation and the C-5A Galaxy were other pioneering aircraft created by Lockheed’s corporations.

In 1912, Allan Loughead established the Lockheed Aircraft Co., which created the first all-aluminium commercial aeroplane – the L-10 Electra, opening the doors to many other larger aircraft made of aluminium. The Constellation and the C-5A Galaxy were other pioneering aircraft created by Lockheed’s corporations.

Aluminium was used in New York’s Empire State Building’s construction, which was finished in 1931. The building’s basic structure and components were completed using aluminium and the interior and lobby were finished with aluminium.

Aluminium alloy 6061 is a medium to high strength heat-treatable alloy developed in 1935, originally called ‘Alloy 61s’. It is one of the most extruded alloys known for its corrosion resistance and weldability. Its mechanical properties make it ideal for multiple applications in the transport, building and electrical sector.

Igor Sikorsky invented and created the first viable helicopter and opened a new arm of the aircraft industry with high dependence on aluminium alloys. The world’s first practical helicopter – the VS-300 took flight at Stratford on 14 September 1939. Sikorsky also designed the S-42, the first flying boat to successfully navigate the rough Atlantic waters to Bermuda.

7075 aluminium alloy is an aluminium alloy with zinc as the primary alloying element and copper as secondary. It has excellent mechanical properties and exhibits good ductility, high strength and toughness. Its high strength makes it suitable for high-stress situations such as aerospace applications. Japan’s Sumitomo Metal secretly developed the 7075 in 1935. It was later introduced in 1943 by Alcoa before becoming standardised in 1945 for aerospace use.

The first alufoil blister was utilised in 1952, becoming an ideal packaging solution for pharmaceuticals due to its protective properties against external factors. The format has also found new applications over the years, such as confectionery and chewing gum.

The aluminium industry worked together to design an alloys classification system and set up a procedure to set standards for existing alloys and a process to register new alloys. This progress expedited the development, manufacturing, selling and commerce of aluminium products and progress among producers and customers across the globe. The North American Aluminum Association (AA) created the designation system for wrought alloys in 1954. Later on, it was adopted by the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) in 1970 for its simplicity and flexibility.

In 1954, Swanson became the first company to mass-produce frozen meals called ‘Swanson TV Dinners’, providing the blueprint for today’s ready-made meals. Swanson’s TV Dinners married the increasing consumer appetite for using time-saving modern appliances with the longevity of a frozen meal. The food groups in a TV dinner were displayed neatly in a divided aluminium tray and heated up in a conventional oven.

The Bell Bay aluminium smelter is a unique part of Tasmanian and Australian history. Addressing the difficulties in importing aluminium during wartime, this joint venture became the first aluminium smelter in the southern hemisphere when it began production in 1955.

The Sputnik satellite was constructed of aluminium alloys and was launched into space by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957. Aerospace aluminium alloys are designed to deal with sub-zero and extreme temperature conditions.

Ermal Fraze designed the “pull-tab”, attaching an aluminium pull-ring lever with a rivet to a pre-scored wedge-shaped tab section of the can top, eliminating the need for a separate opener tool. It is most commonly used in cans.

Aluminium beverage cans first came on the scene in the late 50s/early 60s. Companies such as Coors Brewing Company, Kaiser Aluminium, Reynolds Metals Company and Royal Crown were the key players in the early days of aluminium beverage can production. The aluminium can was originally made with only two pieces — a body and an end, unlike the 3-piece steel cans, making 360-degree printing possible on the body of the can and making it lightweight and more recyclable. The first two-piece aluminium cans weighed approximately 85 grams – they now weigh approx. 15 grams.

STELVIN developed the aluminium closure in response to cork taint and shortage of corks in some areas, offering excellent preservation and protection for bottled beverages.

In July 1969, the Apollo 11 spacecraft landed on the Moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Aluminium was a critical material in the success of this mission. It was made of an aluminium honeycomb sandwich bonded between sheets of aluminium alloy. The Saturn V rocket that launched the spaceship was also constructed of aluminium due to its high strength and low weight characteristics.

The Boeing Aircraft Corporation, created in 1912, became a leader in developing the earliest all-aluminium alloy aircraft, including the B-314 in 1938 (among the early pioneering transatlantic flying boats), the B-707, in 1958, and the most iconic – the Jumbo Jet B-747 in 1969.

As the aluminium sector realised the environmental, low cost and carbon footprints advantages of recycled aluminium – recycling friendly alloys started to be designed, manufactured and commercialised. This enabled the use of high recycled content in the final products with performance attributes comparable to that of primary based alloys – such as beverage can sheets.

The closed-loop recycling of used beverage cans provides a cradle-to-cradle design framework that avoids the burden of primary aluminium while maintaining the material’s inherent properties. Closed-loop recycling sees a used aluminium can recycled and put back on the grocery shelf as a new can in as little as 60 days. Chicago and Cleveland, USA, saw the first aluminium can recycling plants built, in 1904. Gary Anderson, a 23-year-old, created the modern concept of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ with his Mobius Loop logo in 1970, therefore providing the basis for closed-loop recycling of aluminium cans.

In 1972 the International Primary Aluminium Institute (IPAI) was formed by leading aluminium producers. The initial aim was to publish credible statistics on global aluminium production and foster collaboration on key environmental issues and other shared purposes. Renamed the International Aluminium Institute (IAI) in 2000, the activities have expanded to include a broader range of statistics, collaboration on issues covering all aspects of sustainability, as well as promotion of the industry and its products.

The formation of EAFA has been instrumental in the promotion of alufoil products to a wider audience, with roots in associations dating back to 1920.

The London Metal Exchange (LME) was established in 1877 to cater to the metal needs of British industries. Established as the London Metal Market and Exchange Company, LME has grown into the world’s largest marketplace for non-ferrous metals – including aluminium. Aluminium contracts were introduced in 1978 and account for about a third of all contracts made on the LME.

Growing demand for fuel economy, lightweight automobiles and electric vehicles have significantly increased the shift towards aluminium and its alloys. Aluminium’s share in the overall weight of an average car has constantly risen – from 35 kg in the 1970s to about 152 kg presently. Ford created a milestone by switching its F-150 truck body to aluminium and launching its Ford aluminium F-150 in 2015. The body was made from military-grade aluminium alloy that made the truck 700 pounds lighter and more fuel-efficient. The all-aluminium truck improved Ford’s sales. The Ford F-series continued to be the US’s best-selling pickup truck.

The dominance of historical producers has declined since the 1980s as new producers have appeared on the scene and the producer-dominated pricing system has declined. The concentration of capacity among the ‘big six’ started dwindling. Aluminium became an exchange commodity with standardised consumer attributes. The market price of aluminium is now determined by the official LME price, regional premium that depends on the availability of the metal in a specific market, and commodity markup depending on the type of commodity.

The aluminium market has benefitted from participants who are neither producers nor consumers of the metal. They are the financial participants who provide liquidity through market making or investing in the metal. Financial futures markets started operating in the 1970s and 1980s. Financial institutions and investors play a key role in influencing LME prices.

The leading aluminium firms responded differently to the market changes in aluminium after the 1980s when the primary aluminium production base started shifting out of historic regions. The emphasis moved from producing standardised ‘commodity’ aluminium to more specialised products with higher value-added – either complex aluminium-containing materials or downstream products. This led to the development of the downstream industry in the west and the emergence of a consumer market.

Aluminium’s high electrical conductivity makes it suitable for electrical eThe process of recycling aluminium involves re-melting the metal, which is less energy-intensive than producing new aluminium from bauxite. Aluminium scrap recycling requires about 5% of the energy needed to produce new aluminium from the ore while maintaining its properties. The global aluminium industry saw a significant increase in the availability of aluminium scrap from 1995. Global recycled aluminium production increased from just 9 million tonnes in 1995 to 21 million tonnes in 2010, to 33 million tonnes in 2020.

Authored by Dietrich Altenpohl, and jointly published in 1998 by The Aluminum Association and The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society (TMS), this book has played a critical role in communicating the advantages and benefits of aluminium and its alloys as engineering materials. Dr Rodney Hannemann notes in the Forward that this book serves as the benchmark and reference for years to come for the use of aluminium and its alloys in numerous applications, such as aerospace, construction, infrastructure and transportation.

The 500 kA pot was a significant milestone in improving the prebaked cells technology, which raised potline amperages by 900% to 500kA from the 1940 vintage 50 kA cells. Aluminium Pechiney designed and built the first 500 kA pot in the year 2000 and perfected the technology over the following two decades.

Bell Laboratories produced the first efficient silicon solar cell in 1954. Since then, aluminium alloys are a key material in the construction and structure of photovoltaic solar systems. Aluminium’s lightweight and electrical conductivity makes it a preferable material to use.

Total PFC emissions were reduced by 38% in the global aluminium industry (46% by IAI member companies) from 1990 to 2000 while primary production increased by 24%. Voluntary programs have been effective in reducing PFC emissions. Further, it has reduced from 1.6 ton/tAl in 2008 to 1.2ton/tAl in 2018.

Australia’s bauxite mining industry has worked collaboratively for many years with the traditional owners of the land. In 2001, 11 Traditional Owner groups entered into an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) over the mining lease areas with bauxite miner Comalco (who later became Rio Tinto, Weipa). The agreement was called the Western Cape Communities Co-Existence Agreement (WCCCA) and has resulted in many changes in bauxite mine operations. One significant change is the 25% indigenous employment rate at Weipa, one of the world’s largest mines. This is one of the greatest examples of the coexistence of industry and culture.

The aluminium industry was the pioneer in using Life Cycle Assessment methods to demonstrate sustainability credentials in the automotive sector. The global life cycle analysis of aluminium was first released in 2003. Primary aluminium is more energy-intensive to produce, but it turned out to be less energy-intensive considering the three stages of LCA-Production, Usage and Recycling. Using 90% plus recycled content from post-consumer scrap and calculating that over the lifetime use on the road, aluminium-intensive cars turn out to be less energy-intensive than steel.

A major achievement in the pursuit of global environmental sustainability is aluminium’s ability to retain its properties after repeated recycling with just 5% of the energy needed to make new aluminium. Aluminium is one of the most recycled and recyclable materials used today and is tailor-made for a circular and sustainable economy. A global material flow model for the aluminium industry was available from 2005 and has become the basis for the fact that 75% of aluminium ever produced is still in use today due to the infinite recyclability and longevity of the metal.

In 2008, Apple introduced the aluminium unibody style for its MacBook Pro line that was carved out of a single block of aluminium alloy and abandoned its black and white plastic casings. In 2018, Apple launched the MacBook Air – ‘The Greenest Mac Ever’, from an aluminium alloy made of 100% recycled aluminium from the used beverage can scrap. It is an example of 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

Inert Anode is a technology that involves an anode that is insoluble in the electrolyte during electrolysis. Inert anodes do not get corroded and release oxygen instead of CO2. This technology is a pathbreaker in lowering CO2eq emissions during the aluminium smelting process. Research on inert anode technology started around 1985 and saw a demonstration at the plant level after 2010. A number of companies are aiming to commercialise an inert anode electrolysis process in the next few years.

Since 2000, there has been a gradual shift of primary aluminium production base, especially from North America to Asia, mostly driven by better availability of raw materials, labour and energy sources. The shift became apparent after 2010 with the emergence of China. However, The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and India have also seen immense growth in primary aluminium in the last two decades. Both the regions now contribute about 15% of the global aluminium production. Australia, Jamaica, and Guinea gained prominence because of the bauxite reserves and as key exporters of the ore.

NASA’s Orion MPCV is a new spaceship for humans designed to visit destinations such as the Moon and Mars under a NASA plan called Artemis. The structural backbone of the crew module is called the pressure vessel, made of an aluminium-lithium alloy, which gives the body strength while reducing weight. This aluminium alloy spaceship was test-launched in December 2014 and Artemis is expected to launch in 2022.

China’s primary aluminium production surged from around 16 million tonnes in 2010 to 26.5 million tonnes in 2013 and accounted for 50% of the world’s total production. China’s aluminium production continues to grow – 39 million tonnes in 2021, about 58% of total global production.

The European Union (EU) funds bauxite residue utilisation research under the EU Horizon 2020 initiative. Funding supports PhDs studies into waste valorisation and the ReActiv project exploring bauxite residue in supplementary cementitious materials.

The first Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI) Certifications for the Performance Standard and for the Chain of Custody Standards were issued. The ASI program continued to grow strongly during this and subsequent years.

The production of aluminium at the ELYSIS Industrial Research and Development Center marks the achievement of a significant milestone – using a full industrial design at a size comparable to a small smelting cell in operation today. ELYSIS brings carbon-free aluminium smelting a step closer and aims to have its technology available for installation from 2024.

The aluminium industry sets out three credible and realistic approaches to emissions reductions in line with the International Energy Agency’s Beyond 2 Degree Scenario. The pathways, based on IAI unrivalled data and leading analysis of the global aluminium industry, are 1) Electricity decarbonisation; 2) Direct Emissions; and 3) Recycling and resource efficiency.

Rio Tinto is setting a new standard in transparency and traceability for the aluminium industry with the launch of START. START helps customers meet the demand for consumer transparency on where and how the products they purchase are made. It provides information about the site where the aluminium is produced and covers criteria such as carbon footprint, water use, recycled content and energy sources.