It’s called aluminum by the Americans and aluminium by the British, but everyone agrees that it’s the third most abundant element in the world next to oxygen and silicon. About 8 percent of the world’s mass is made up of it. But you can’t find it naturally in pure form. In the Earth’s crust, it is part of a compound called alum.
A Danish chemist was first able to extract aluminum from alum in 1825. Succeeding scientists were able to improve the process for years afterwards, but the difficulty of extracting the metal made it more valuable than gold. Napoleon III, who was president of the French Second Republic in 1848, honored his guests by offering aluminum cutlery and plates for dinner use. The les important guests had to use gold cutlery. In 1884, the Washington Monument was capped with it because of the value of the metal at the time.
Then in 1886, a chemistry graduate named Charles Hall and a French engineer named Paul Heroult separately came up with the process to extract the metal more efficiently. This Hall-Heroult method is still used today to produce aluminum.
Below is the historical Aluminum price per metric ton.
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Price History of Aluminum
Because of the more efficient way of producing this metal, the price of the metal dropped relative to gold soon thereafter. Its price is affected by several factors. It doesn’t become too expensive because it is plentiful and easier to extract.
What’s more, it is recyclable. It’s estimated that about 75% of aluminum that has ever been produced is still in use today. That’s because it can be recycled infinitely. Other recyclable materials like wood, plastics, and natural fiber tend to worsen as they’re repeatedly recycled. After recycling, they end up as inferior to newer material. But that’s not the case with this mineral. You don’t lose any of its quality after you’ve recycled it. It’s indistinguishable in quality compared to newly produced aluminum.
With recycling, energy usage is much less when producing the metal. In fact, compared to the energy costs of extracting it from ore, recycling only uses 5% of the energy needed for extraction. The energy savings when you recycle a single aluminum can is enough to run a television for 3 hours. In 1996, recycling this metal saved enough energy sufficient to power Pittsburgh for more than 6 years.
What can keep the price low are the ever-bigger inventories of the metal all around the world, so supply is never a problem. Add the slowdown of growth in some markets, and lower demand plus high supply can lead to lower prices.
Aluminum as Investment
Still, demand for it is high because it can be used in so many products. It’s light, resistant to corrosion, non-magnetic, and also non-toxic. It’s also strong when used as an alloy, as it’s never used as pure aluminum. The alloys can have as much as 99% aluminum, as it’s reinforced by other metals like copper, zinc, manganese, magnesium, and silicon.
Many people can invest in this metal because its price can really fluctuate wildly. Part of that is because the metal is an integral material in manufacturing. It’s used for so many products and devices so the demand is always there.
Investors can put their money in aluminum futures, with each contract controlling 44,000 pounds of aluminum. These futures can be very risky, as the prices can fluctuate in unexpected ways.
You can also trade ETFs or exchange traded funds. Some ETFs deal with futures along futures of copper and zinc, while others may also put their money in aluminum producers.
Investors like you can also trade stocks of producers. Alcoa is the largest producer of this metal in the world, so you can buy stocks in that company. Or you can buy mining stocks. In general, during good economic growth the price of this mineral can rise due to increased use of the metal for various consumer goods and for construction. The prices go down during an economic slowdown.
Uses of Aluminum
Aluminum is used for many devices including electronic gadgets and sports equipment. Here are some other ways that it is used:
- It’s widely used in construction, as the element can be used in just about every part of a house or building. Many builders like to use it because it can easily be cut or welded into various shapes.
- It’s also used a lot in food packaging. It can keep the food clean from harmful elements, it doesn’t affect the taste of food, and most of all it isn’t toxic.
- Cars and other transportation vessels use the element extensively as well. Because it is light, it is used widely for airplanes. Its light weight also offers better fuel efficiency.
Despite the relative abundance of aluminum, more efforts should be made to increase recycling the metal. It’s been estimated that every three months, Americans discard enough aluminum to completely rebuild every single commercial plane in the country!