Early Aluminum Processing
Henri-Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville, born 1818, invented the first industrial process for producing aluminum. In 1854, he built on earlier work of German chemist, Friedrich Woelher, and found a method of preparing aluminum, based on aluminum chloride and sodium.
Aluminum, the third most abundant element in the earth’s crust — and its most plentiful metal — is made from bauxite, a reddish-brown rock discovered in Les Baux, France, in 1821. As predicted, the commercialization of this light, lustrous and non-rusting metal has revolutionized the world. Today, aluminum is used to make everything from aircraft to art, buildings, power lines and packaging.
More than 7,000 years ago, Persians made their strongest pottery out of clay containing aluminum oxide. Three millennia later, ancient Egyptians were using other aluminum compounds in medicines, dyes and cosmetics. But because aluminum has a high affinity for oxygen and never occurs in its metallic form in nature, it proved difficult to isolate. In 1825, the Danish chemist Hans Christian Oersted finally produced a sample — albeit very impure — using heat and a potassium-based mixture. Over the next 20 years, Friedrich Wöhler, a German chemist, improved this process by using metallic potassium.
Henri Sainte-Claire Deville of France substituted potassium with less expensive sodium in 1854 and was able to create enough aluminum for display at the Paris Exposition of 1855. Billed as “silver from clay,” aluminum bars were shown alongside France’s crown jewels. The juxtaposition was fitting: rubies, emeralds and sapphires consist mainly of crystalline aluminum oxide.
At that time, pure aluminum was valued at $115 per pound — more expensive than gold. Napoleon III proudly displayed aluminum cutlery at his state banquets, commissioned aluminum equipment for his military and even had an aluminum and gold baby rattle made for his son.
Visit National Historic Chemical Landmarks to read more about aluminum processing.
Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program