Imagine we had a perfect “dream material” in real life. It would be so strong that you could build an entire airplane with it. It would be lightweight, yet much tougher than plastic. Even heated past 200 degrees, it would remain nontoxic, and you could safely eat food from it.
Tough enough to rival steel but safe in water, it wouldn’t ever rust. You could use it for electrical motors and even wiring because it would conduct electricity well. Ultra-high-revving race engines could use it, moving pistons at 20,000 rpm. How many years of government grants and industrial research would it take to create such a technological marvel?
The answer is: none. We have it, and it’s called aluminum. From the $13,000 million aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford to the lowly crushed Coke can on the pavement of Academy Street, aluminum is part of our world. Without it, there would be no air travel as we know it.
Car engines would have to revert to old-fashioned, noisy iron parts with heat problems. The food, housewares and leisure industries would scramble to find safe alternatives for aluminum wrap, cookpots and lightweight camping gear.
This marvelous invention doesn’t exist in nature as a metal. To produce it, bauxite is mined and chemically refined into alumina, which is then used with a lot of electricity to produce metallic aluminum. The end result is about 1 pound of metal for every 4 pounds of bauxite. In Georgia, the main bauxite deposits are mined in Andersonville, near Americus. Most of the U.S. bauxite comes from Arkansas.
One key factor in aluminum production is the 130-year-old Hall-Héroult process that uses a great deal of electrical power. Even though it comes mostly from hydroelectric plants (dams), conserving electricity eliminates the need for coal-fired power elsewhere. Recycling aluminum saves 95 percent of that energy.
Besides the feeling of having done something responsible for the world, there’s also a financial bonus. Last week, recyclers in Hall County were paying 45 cents per pound of aluminum cans. A load of aluminum scraps I had (old pots, car and appliance parts) yielded 35 cents per pound.
Just hold a magnet to it. If it’s silver-colored and not attracted to a magnet, it’s probably aluminum. At the other end of the quick recycling visit, there’s a nice check to take to the bank.