Tasteful Inventions: Charles M. Hall & Aluminum

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Charles M. Hall & Aluminum

How Do You Spell Aluminum?

How do you spell aluminum? {A L U M I N U M} Me too. That isn't how they spell it in some other countries. The preferred spelling in Australia is {A L U M I N I U M} two I's. In the UK and other countries using British spelling, only aluminium is used. Well, it seems, Charles Martin Hall is considered the originator of the American spelling of aluminum. According to Oberlin College, he misspelled it on a handbill publicizing his aluminum refinement process. The process was so revolutionary, and brought the metal to such prominence, that Americans have spelled aluminum with one I ever since. So the next time you get corrected for spelling aluminum wrong, just refer to wiki. But wait, The Center for Study of Technology and Society begs to differ. Their website states, "The spelling debate dates back to long before Hall was born."

Unlike 12 year old Mattie Knight, who invented her bag machine for safety's sake, Charles Martin Hall (who began experimenting with minerals at the age of 12) was inspired by his chemistry professor, Frank Fanning Jewett, who said the person who discovered an economical way to produce aluminum would become rich. Charles Martin Hall: aluminum’s "boy wonder" did just that. On April 2, 1889, Charles Martin Hall patented an inexpensive method for the production of aluminum. US patent #400666 described as a "process of electro lyzing crude salts of aluminum. (notice the spelling on the patent)

Let's see, if Charles M. Hall was born on December 6, 1863, which he was, he was around 26 years old when he received his patent. Not bad I'd say. But, did he do it alone? Well, we already know he was encouraged by his chemistry professor who provided ideas and materials for him to use in his scientific experiments, which took place in a woodshed behind his family home. Hmmm...it seems his family was of some assistance also. Some credit for his great invention should also be given to his older sister Julia Brainerd Hall. I guess big sisters don't always get all the credit, there isn't much available on the internet about her except to say she also majored in chemistry at the same college as Charles and under the same professor. She did help her brother with his experiments by taking laboratory notes and giving business advice. We can't really forget about German chemist Friedrich Wöhler. If it weren't for his discovery of aluminum in the first place, Charles M. Hall may never have received international fame as a practical chemist for his discovery in relation to the manufacture of aluminum.

It's the commonest metal in Earth's crust, the third most plentiful chemical element on our planet (only oxygen and silicon exist in greater quantity), and the second most popular metal for making things (after iron/steel). We all see and use aluminum every day without even thinking about it. Disposable drinks cans are made from it and so is cooking foil. You can find this ghostly grey-white metal in some pretty amazing places, from jet engines in airplanes to the hulls of hi-tech warships. What makes aluminum such a brilliantly useful material? Explain That Stuff!

The basis of Hall's invention involves "passing an electric current through a bath of alumina dissolved in cryolite, which results in a puddle of aluminum forming in the bottom of the retort." After years of intensive work in which he had to fabricate most of his apparatus and prepare his chemicals, Hall found the solvent he needed: molten cryolite, the mineral sodium aluminum fluoride on February 23, 1886. He produced his first small bits of aluminum using the cryolite, aluminum oxide and homemade batteries. A few months later on July 9, 1886, Charles M. Hall filed for his first patent. Ironically, the process was also discovered at nearly the same time in France by Paul Héroult The production of aluminum by electrochemistry has come to be known now as the Hall-Héroult process. The Hall-Héroult process is used all over the world and is the only method of aluminium smelting currently used in the industry. In 1997 the Hall-Héroult process was designated an ACS National Historical Chemical Landmark in recognition of the importance of the commercialization of aluminum four years after The Joseph Priestley House, in Pennsylvania home of Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen.

Because of his youth, Charles had difficulty getting money to pursue his project. He needed a plant to produce aluminum on a commercial scale. Never deterred, He left Ohio and went to Pittsburgh where he was introduced to noted metallurgist and industrialist Alfred Ephraim Hunt. The electrolytic process, invented by Charles Martin Hall, immediately aroused the interest of Captain Hunt. Together, they formed the Reduction Company of Pittsburgh and in 1888, they began the production of pure aluminum on a commercial scale. At the outset one small mill was started, with a total output of only 100 pounds a day. This was then sold at about $2.00 a pound. The Hall-Héroult process eventually resulted in reducing the price of aluminum by a factor of 200, making it affordable for many practical uses. By 1900, annual production reached about 8 thousand tons. In 1907, the company became the Aluminum Corporation of America (Alcoa). By 1911, the three plants Mr. Hall managed had an annual production of about 40,000,000 pounds. He was also awarded the Perkin Metal for his accomplishments and since he was a major stockholder in the company he became a very wealthy man. Today, more aluminum is produced than all other non-ferrous metals combined.

Great News! Aluminum is highly recyclable. Recycled aluminum foil uses 95% less energy to produce than foil made from virgin aluminum. You can find uses for recycled aluminum foil at Green Options. If you have any innovative ideas for using recycled aluminum foil, I'm sure we would all love to hear them. Just leave a comment. Here are a few to get you started.

  1. Europeans have been recycling aluminum foil for years. You can rinse clean aluminum foil of any food and place it in the same recycling container as you do for recycling aluminum cans.
  2. Cut clean aluminum into tiny pieces (using a paper cutter), and use for whenever you need glitter.
  3. Visit the Alcoa Recycling Company website for some more ideas and fun facts.
  • 1. The Center for Study of Technology and Society
  • 2. Charles Martin Hall
  • 3. Brief Origin of the Element Names Aluminum
  • 4. Oberlin College Archives
  • 5. Mattie Knight