Aluminum, also called aluminium, is the most abundant metallic element in the Earth's crust. Expressed as the symbol Al, this element has an atomic number of 13 and a density lower than most common metals. Production has climbed steeply over the past two decades, particularly in China. Today it is the second-most produced metal globally.
The history of aluminum is largely shaped by the use of alum, which are chemical compounds of hydrated double salts containing aluminum. The first recorded use of alum dates back to the 5th century BCE where it was used for city defense and dyeing mordant. After the crusades, alum became an indispensable good in the European fabric industry, being imported from the eastern Mediterranean until the mid-15th century. During the 20th century, aluminum became an indispensable part of everyday life as an essential component of housewares, and later as a much-sought civil engineering material.
Attempts to produce aluminum metal date back to 1760. The first successful attempt, however, wasn't completed until 1824. Since early methods could not yield great amounts of aluminum, its cost was more than that of gold. The first industrial large-scale production method, named the Hall–Héroult Process, was developed in 1886.
Aluminum visually resembles silver and is soft, non-magnetic and ductile with excellent thermal and electrical conductivity. Aluminum can be drawn into wire or rolled into thin foil, is non-toxic, non-adsorptive, splinter proof, and very low in density. It is also relatively cheap, highly conductive, and resists corrosion.
Overall, the Earth is about 1.59% aluminum by mass. In nature it reacts rapidly with oxygen to form oxides that become bound into rocks. For this reason, aluminum is primarily found in the Earth's crust as oxides or silicates. It is almost never found in the elemental state. Although a common and widespread element, not all aluminum minerals are economically viable sources of the metal. Almost all metallic aluminum is produced from the ore bauxite which forms under wet tropical or subtropical climates.
Aluminum is almost always alloyed. Being highly versatile, it is used in the transportation (automobiles, aircrafts, etc.) and construction (exterior siding, structural use) sectors, packaging, furniture, cooking utensils, and in electrical and electronics industries.
Aluminum is produced from bauxite through a series of processes. First, the Bayer process is used to convert bauxite to alumina. Alumina is then converted to aluminum through the Hall–Héroult process which yields a purity over 99%. Further purification to 99.99%, can be achieved through the Hoopes process. Approximately 4-5 tonnes of bauxite are required to produce 1 tonne of aluminum.
Recycling is an important component of the aluminum industry. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, providing an avenue to add value. According to the Aluminum Association, close to 75% of all aluminum produced in the US is still in use today. More than 90% of aluminum in automotive and building parts are recycled. Recycling is also far more efficient, requiring 95% less energy than producing aluminum from ore.
Since aluminum production is very energy-consuming, smelters are commonly located in places where electric power is both plentiful and inexpensive. China currently has the highest global smelter production, followed by India, Russia, Canada, and the United Arab Emirates.
Australia, Brazil, and China are the top three aluminum-producing countries. China is the top producer of primary aluminum at 36 Mt, with a world share of 60%. Bauxite ore is mainly mined in Australia, Guinea and China. The biggest reserves of bauxite ore, the raw material for aluminum, are located in Guinea, Australia and Vietnam.
Global demand for aluminum is concentrated in China where urbanization has created strong demand. China alone accounted for 56.5% of global consumption in 2019. North America, Asia and Europe were the next largest consumers, ranging from 10-14%. World production has been steadily increasing, growing by 50% over the past decade in response to growing demand.
Chinese aluminum output is forecast to grow by 4.5% to 38.7 Mt in 2021. The overall global output is expected to rise by 3.8 percent, reaching 67.7 Mt by 2021. Global demand is expected to rise by 4.5% in 2021. Worldwide aluminum capacity continues to grow, with significant production and or reserve capacity in the United States, Brazil, Canada, China, and other nations.
Aluminum began trading as an exchange commodity in the 1970's. Today it is the world's largest exchange commodity for metals in terms of trading volumes. It accounts for nearly a third of all contracts made on the London Metal Exchange (LME). Aluminum futures are mostly traded on the LME, COMEX (New York Mercantile Exchange) and the Shanghai Futures Exchange.
The largest producers of aluminum include the China-based Chalco, Hongqiao and Xinfa companies, as well as Rusal of Russia, Rio Tinto from Australia, and Alcoa in the US.
Aluminum futures have tended to trade between $1,500 and $2,000 per tonne, but broke $3,000 in 2021 on the back of tightening supply and expectations of higher restocking levels. Data for 2021 projects the commodity is due to extend its upside momentum, with price continuing to climb for a time.
The price of aluminum is based on the cumulative result of the previous trading session. Given is multitude of purposes and that many global industries use aluminum in their products, the price models the overall health of the world economy. Social, political and economic conditions are the major determinants of price, based on how they impact demand and supply. The most important economic influences on aluminum prices include transportation, construction, input costs, Chinese demand, and the US dollar.
Aluminum is one of many valuable metal commodities, among others are nickel, steel, and copper.
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