The newest of metals, still the metal of the future

In 1825, a somewhat incomprehensible, but clearly amusing news spread around the world: the Danish scientist Hans-Christian Oersted managed, using the electrolysis method, to extract from alumina a new, hitherto unseen metal – aluminum.

Having confirmed the idea of ​​the English chemist Davy with this wonderful experience, Oersted was completely satisfied with this experiment and did not develop it, although … although many told him that by developing this as the idea of ​​ u200b u200bthe production of a new metal, one could get a lot of money.

Oersted, however, was a normal scientist, and not a man hungry for insane riches: having achieved success in this experiment of his, he planned to take up other scientific problems.
They say that Oersted was then at a very old age – he was 48 years old, and he was extremely sensitive to the expenditure of time, which he always lacked for his scientific work – as a result, he immortalized his name not with this experiment (which he himself did not give of serious importance) and not possible enrichment, namely scientific work.

Here he is, Hans-Christian Oersted, who made aluminum.

So, the principle of obtaining aluminum by Oersted was discovered, but only 20 years later. After 18 years (!!!) of continuous work, the German Wöller created on this basis a technology that made it possible to obtain not microscopic particles, but hundreds of … grams of such a metal.

By this time, mankind already knew about bauxite – a reddish clay, extremely rich in aluminum.

In addition, since ancient times, people knew what “alum” is (the so-called double salts of some metals, most often aluminum) and actively used them – in pharmaceuticals, dyeing and tanning industries.

But industrial, and not laboratory, technology for its production still did not find its developers, until the French Saint-Clair Deville got down to business.

In just a year, he perfected Wöller’s method, and at the Paris Exhibition of 1855, visitors were amazed with a whole ingot of beautifully shiny and unusually light metal.
True, what the new metal could be applied to was a mystery.

It was so expensive to manufacture that it was comparable to precious metals, therefore, first of all, they tried to use it in jewelry.

Saint Clair Deville.

Napoleon III, who favored Deville, ordered aluminum jewelry and even a large set of dishes from him: at royal receptions he himself and the most noble persons ate from aluminum dishes and used aluminum appliances, and the simpler guests were content with what they ate on gold and silver.

The British Academy of Sciences ordered a valuable gift from Deville to its esteemed colleague Mendeleev, who was presented with the most accurate analytical balance (the chemist used them all his life) with cups of gold and aluminum.

It was not immediately (time passed) that it turned out that aluminum darkens and loses its shine, becomes covered with dotted spots, that dents remain on it, and, for example, dishes made from it are short-lived and rather quickly lose their “presentation”.

In general, at some point in the search for an application for this incredibly expensive metal, there was, let’s say, a crisis of the genre: there were a lot of ideas, but the possibilities for testing them, due to the high cost of aluminum, were limited.

Everything changed when, in 1866, two young men at once – the French engineer Paul Héroux and the American student Charles Hall, simultaneously and independently of each other, invented the method of electrolysis of cryolite-alumina melt, which brought down the cost of aluminum production and made it a rather cheap metal.

Walter Rathenau, German businessman and politician of Jewish origin. His father created Europe’s largest energy company, AEG, and Walter began to produce aluminum in such quantities that aluminum fell sharply and became a fairly affordable material for the manufacturer.

In 1889, an Austrian engineer Karl-Josef Bayer, who worked at a plant near St. Petersburg, also solved the problem of preparing the main raw material – alumina, which allowed the already rather inexpensive metal to become even cheaper.

There was only one problem with aluminum – it was high energy consumption, and all factories for its production tried to be located as close to energy sources as possible.

The factories that Eru founded (they belonged not to him, but to a group of shareholders headed by the famous German entrepreneur Rathenau) were located in the Swiss Neuhausen am Rheinfall and French Froger, near hydroelectric power plants, and Hall (he was also not the main shareholder of the created company, occupying in it the position of vice president and being, in fact, the chief engineer) at some point created an excellently equipped enterprise, which became the leading one in the concern, next to the Niagara hydroelectric power station.

Note that Hall and Eru, in which historians see considerable similarities (though mainly referring to the fact that the years of their birth and death, as well as the year they discovered the new technology, coincide), were different people: Hall, a real fanatic his business, an obsessed experimenter, and Eru, in his own way, is a serial inventor who went down in history not only as the inventor of the Hall-Eroux method, but also the invention of the electric arc furnace for smelting steel, named after him, and more than two dozen patents for various , sometimes very unusual, but very practical inventions, but all 22 of Hall’s patents are related exclusively to aluminum.

Paul Héroux and Charles Hall, who revolutionized aluminum production.
The plant in Neuhausen under the leadership of Eru is growing by leaps and bounds: in just five years, the volume of aluminum produced there grows 10 times, up to 450 tons per year.

This is more than that produced by Deville and his competitor Beketov (whose plant was located in Germany and used Deville’s technology) in almost 40 years of operation.
The Hall-Heroult method made it possible to think about the practically unlimited scale of the production of “metal from clay”, and the fantasy began to work: already in 1891 in Switzerland, Erouh made a boat with an aluminum hull for Alfred Nobel, and three years later in Scotland they are already building a torpedo boat from this material (for the Russian Navy, by the way), which strikes everyone with an incredible speed, at 32 knots – from that moment on, aluminum is used unusually widely in shipbuilding.

George Mortimer Pullman, the inventor of the amazing sleeping cars, will also quickly appreciate aluminum.

And in 1898-1899, Karl Benz began to use aluminum in internal combustion engines – this experience would prove to be so attractive that all motor builders, without exception, would switch to the use of aluminum.

In the twentieth century, aircraft manufacturers will reach the ultimate strength of airplanes, which at first, in the words of the hero of one of the novels, were made “of plywood and oilcloth”: the growing industry will need new materials, and such (still irreplaceable) material will be duralumin – an alloy of aluminum with manganese, magnesium and copper (this prevented the brittleness of pure aluminum).

Karl Benz’s first gasoline engine. Looks good. In the future, most of the details will be made of aluminum, and that will be beautiful too. But in a different way it is beautiful.

The German Alfred Wilm was engaged in the invention of this alloy for 7 years, but duralumin arrived in time, exactly when the demand appeared: the first aircraft with an all-metal body, the brainchild of the famous Hugo Junkers – a trendsetter and one of the fathers of civil aviation – took off in 1915, during the first world. But after the war, almost all aircraft will be manufactured exactly as Junkers did – with an all-metal aluminum body.

Another industrial front of the twentieth century – electrification – will call aluminum to work as a conductor, where its cheapness will make it a popular alternative to copper.
The invention of such a common thing in everyday life as aluminum foil will also be extremely important – by the way, it takes Robert Neer four years from the moment of invention (1907) to the launch of the foil rolling mill, and his Swiss compatriots, chocolate makers, become the first consumers. Toblerone is among the first to be dressed in foil.
In 1920, the Norwegian Soderbergh made technological changes to the Hall-Heroult method, which once again “drops” the production prices of an already seemingly inexpensive metal – it is the Norwegian method that will be used in the construction of the USSR’s first aluminum production plant ( previously, it was not produced in our territories: Russia was one of the largest importers of aluminum in the world).

It is clear that the plant was built next to the Volkhovskaya hydroelectric power station, according to the project of the American company Kahn (which not only designs the building, but designs it specifically for the Soderberg method, thereby “forcing” to use the most modern of technologies).

Volkhov aluminum smelter.

In 1935, an aluminum beer can began its journey – quite heavy (almost a kilogram), cut from three pieces of metal, to which a special key was needed to open it – buyers accepted it without enthusiasm, but the idea seemed very promising to manufacturers, and the idea slowly improved: the same aluminum beer can that we use now appeared only in 1975.

The further path of aluminum, in fact, is taking place before our eyes – everyone may have used aluminum dishes (therefore, everyone can easily imagine himself, if not Emperor Napoleon III, then at least one of his honored guests). They began to produce it at the beginning of the last century, paying particular attention to lightness and anti-corrosion properties, but today this tableware is practically not produced – the demand for it is extremely low due to its “unhygienic” (poorly washed) and doubtful suspicion of toxicity.

In the 20s. aluminum began to be actively used in construction, and in 1931 the legendary Empire State Building was built in New York, where aluminum is used both in the main (including load-bearing) structures and in the decoration of the building. This structure has remained the tallest on the planet for many years, and aluminum is firmly gaining its place as one of the favorite materials of architects and builders – not without the “advertising” influence of this skyscraper, of course.

The first artificial Earth satellite, made of aluminum. Like all subsequent space objects.

The fact that aluminum “works” in space (the first artificial Earth satellite is cut from three sheets of aluminum) is probably known to everyone; but it is probably time to stop listing the spheres of its application, otherwise this article will grow to completely “unreadable” sizes – so much and often we meet this wonderful metal in our life.

You can even summarize what began almost two centuries ago in the laboratory of the Royal Danish University as a scientific experiment, as a result of which the first few grains of metal unseen before were mined …

The results, of course, are intermediate – because modern technologists are very optimistic about calling aluminum, despite its two-hundred-year history, the metal of the future.

Alexander Ivanov, specially for the VDSina blog


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