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01 / 05
Stuff of Progress, Pt. 9: Aluminum

Blog Post | Science & Technology

Stuff of Progress, Pt. 9: Aluminum

Aluminum provides the backbone for much of our transport, electronics and energy infrastructure.

We are all familiar with aluminum. It is an integral part of everyday life. From our technology to our infrastructure, aluminum seems omnipresent. That wasn’t always the case, as refined aluminum was once rare and outlandishly expensive. Aluminum was discovered by the English chemist Humphry Davy in 1808. However, technical difficulties prohibited Davy from refining the metal into aluminum. It took nearly 37 years of trial and error before researchers were able to produce small granules of metallic aluminum.

In the decades between 1855 and 1890, just 200 tonnes of aluminum were produced. That kept the price of the metal high and limited its use dramatically. As such, the first aluminum products were extravagant symbols of wealth and luxury. In 1855, 12 relatively small aluminum bullion ingots were exhibited by French Emperor Napoleon III at the Exposition Universelle – such was the value of aluminum that people gathered to bask in its presence. When Napoleon hosted a lavish dinner for the King of Siam, the most highly honored guests were served their meals upon aluminum dishes and ate with aluminum cutlery. The other, somewhat less distinguished guests, had to content themselves with gold cutlery.

Aluminum, however, had a wide range of beneficial characteristics that went beyond mere beauty. Pure aluminum has a high strength to weight ratio, is extremely resistant to corrosion, is non-magnetic and conducts electricity with great efficiency. It was immediately clear that aluminum could be of great industrial, commercial, military and scientific utility, if only it could be produced in a cost effective manner.

Aluminum accounts for just over 8 percent of the Earth’s crust by weight. However, unlike many other metals, aluminum is not found in its metallic form within nature. Rather, it is locked in a bond as silicates within a clay bauxite, which can contain more than 50 percent of aluminum by weight. Between 1825 and 1845, Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Oersted and German chemist Friedrich Wohler developed a process for producing pure aluminum in bulk. It was the first commercial process of its kind. The breakthrough resulted in the price of aluminum plummeting by more than 90 percent.

Still relatively expensive to produce, the manufacture of aluminum would see one further breakthrough in 1886, when American chemist Charles Martin Hall and French scientist Paul Héroult developed a process of smelting aluminum from bauxite via high intensity electrolysis. The Hall–Héroult Process changed how humanity produced and utilized aluminum forever. Smelting bauxite into elemental aluminum through the Hall–Héroult process allowed for 24/7 continuous casting and an unparalleled reduction in the cost of aluminum.

“The price of aluminum fell from $545 a pound in the 1880s to 20 cents a pound in the 1930s, thanks to the innovations of Charles Martin Hall and his successors at Alcoa,” noted the British author Matt Ridley in his 2010 book The Rational Optimist. Whereas global aluminum production was measured in hundreds of tonnes throughout the 1800s, today global production of the metal exceeds 60 million tonnes, with no shortages in sight. On current projections, demand for aluminum will exceed 80 million tonnes annually by 2023. The Chinese automotive manufacturing sector alone is projected to increase its use of the metal from 3.8 million tonnes in 2018 to 9.1 million tonnes in 2030. In addition to the manufacture of cars (including electric vehicles), aluminum’s most common uses include: refrigerators, air conditioning, solar panels; power lines; rolled products (e.g. tin foil); heat sinks for cooling CPU’s and graphics processors, and construction (e.g., skylights, bridges, ladders, railings, rods, doors and wiring).

The global production of aluminum has changed dramatically over the decades. In the early 1970s, global aluminum production was dominated by the United States, USSR and Japan, which accounted for nearly 60 percent of global aluminum output. Today, those same regions produce just over 10 percent of the metal. In recent decades, China zoomed passed the United States to become one the world’s greatest aluminum producers.

The enormous surge in global production of aluminum since 1950 had less to do with dramatic technological advances in the refining, smelting and casting process, and much more to do with extensive improvements in global trade, exploration and mining. The economic liberalization of China, for example, led to a surge in demand and production of the metal. Over the course of the next decade, the use of aluminum is set to grow in lockstep with continued growth in the technology sector, the transportation sector and the renewable and conventional energy sectors.

Wall Street Journal | Mineral Production

Wyoming Hits the Rare-Earth Mother Lode

“The discovery of 2.34 billion metric tons of rare-earth elements near Wheatland, Wyo., signals the beginning of a new era in the competition for the raw materials that power the global economy. If wisely exploited, this find—estimated to be the richest in the world—will give the U.S. an unparalleled economic and geopolitical edge.”

From Wall Street Journal.

Wall Street Journal | Mineral Production

A Startup Wants to Harvest Lithium from the Great Salt Lake

“This summer, a California startup plans to start construction on a project to suck up water from the Great Salt Lake to extract one of its many valuable minerals: lithium, a critical ingredient in the rechargeable batteries used in electric vehicles. The water will then be reinjected back into the lake, which Lilac Solutions says addresses concerns about the damaging effects of mineral extraction.

At its peak, Lilac says it will use a series of pipes to suck up 80,000 gallons of water a minute to harvest the mineral. The company plans to eventually produce up to 20,000 tons of battery-grade lithium a year at its site in northern Utah, located among fields of cattle and pickleweed.”

From Wall Street Journal.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.

Agriculture

Aquaculture

Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce

Pollination

Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats

Birds

Turtles

Whales

Other comebacks

Forests

Reefs

Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation

De-extinction

Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing

LGBT

Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources

Fission

Fusion

Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development

Education

Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment

Health

Cancer

Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes

Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases

HIV/AIDS

Malaria

Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations

Freedom

    Technology 

    Artificial intelligence

    Communications

    Computing

    Construction and manufacturing

    Drones

    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles

    Transportation

    Other innovations

    Science

    AI in science

    Biology

    Chemistry and materials

      Physics

      Space

      Violence

      Crime

      War

      Blog Post | Mineral Production

      No, We Won’t Run Out of Resources

      We’ve been adapting to resource scarcity for millennia. The idea that we would stop today, at the pinnacle of our development so far, is a peculiar one.

      This article challenges the pessimistic view that human progress will soon come to a halt due to resource scarcity. It argues that humans are problem solvers who can adapt to changing circumstances and find new ways of using resources more efficiently. It illustrates this point with the example of germanium, a mineral that has been extracted from different sources over time depending on the demand and availability.


      Pessimists often claim that human progress is about to come to a screeching halt. They say that the resources that make progress possible are about to run out, dooming us to a reversal in living standards. The Club of Rome, along with nearly every environmentalist, tells us that incessantly, usually pointing to a supposed mineral shortage that will end civilization. The pessimists insist that everything must be recycled and that we must have a completely circular economy. Alas, they fail to understand how the mineral industry actually works. On a deeper level, they fail to understand that humans have agency. We are not merely buffeted by the natural world but can solve problems ourselves.

      Another group that fails to appreciate our problem-solving ability is the American Chemical Society (ACS). The Society has a list of “endangered elements,” which they think might run out in the near future. The idea that we could run out of hafnium is enough to make geologists guffaw – I actually tried this once, and that’s what happened: not just giggles but proper belly laughs. Germanium, another on that list of likely shortages, illustrates my point even better. The world doesn’t use much of it, perhaps 150 tons a year. Some of that is recycled. (There’s nothing wrong with recycling, but insisting that we must recycle is wrong.)

      We first started using germanium for electronics before we switched to using silicon computer chips. Germanium is still the material of choice for getting a warm and fuzzy sound on a guitar pedal, but today, germanium is mostly used for night sights and long-distance fiber optics. That’s because adding a little germanium to glass allows it to carry light for longer distances. So, we like having germanium around, and we would miss it if we ran out.

      Early germanium extraction methods used coal. There’s a little germanium in nearly all coal and more in certain other deposits. If you collect the vapor after burning coal, the germanium concentrates in the ash and can be collected. The chemical company Johnson Matthey used to have a plant in Cheshire, England, to the delight of fuzzy guitar pedal enthusiasts. Later, we realized that certain zinc ores could also provide germanium, and the world supply pivoted to a zinc mine in DR Congo. Then, we got wise to the harmful effects of coal dust floating around the countryside. Coal power plants installed electrostatic precipitators on their chimneys to collect the dust, and coal once again became the primary source of the world’s germanium.

      It might seem lucky that today’s germanium supply is just a byproduct of producing electricity. But to think of it as luck is to get things the wrong way around. We are problem solvers, not just the recipients of happenstance. In the absence of that luck, we could build a factory to do it anyway. That’s how the world’s largest germanium producer, in China, works. They mine coal, burn it in a power station, and collect the germanium-infused dust. Rumor has it – and it might just be a rumor because it’s so cute – that the germanium content is so rich that they give the electricity away to the local town for free.

      The point of my germanium example is to show that we are not dependent on the current methods of mineral extraction, nor do we need luck to avoid shortages. We are tool-making creatures. If we have a problem, we study the world around us and develop a way to solve it.

      Like germanium, every item on the ACS list of “endangered elements” actually has a vast current supply. The current mineral extraction methods might have problems, but the total amount of resources that we can use is imponderable. And if our current methods come up a little short, we’ll find better methods of extraction.

      Our adaptive abilities should be obvious, though they clearly are not. We’ve been adapting to resource scarcity for millennia, and the idea that we would stop today, at the pinnacle of our development so far, is a peculiar one.