95 Recent Developments

In the United States, about 21 billion pounds of aluminum worth $30 billion was produced in 1995, about 23% of the world's production. (To put this in perspective, about $62 billion of steel is shipped each year). Of this, about 25% is consumed in transportation applications, 25% in packaging, 15% in the building and construction market, and 13% in electrical products. Other markets include consumer durables such as appliances and furniture, machinery and equipment for use in petrochemical, textile, mining, and tool industries, reflectors, and powders and pastes used for paint, explosives, and other products.

The current markets for aluminum have developed over the relatively brief history of industrial production of the metal. Commercial production became practical with the invention of the Hall—Heroult process in 1886 and the birth of the electric power industry, a requisite because of the energy required by this smelting process. The first uses of aluminum were for cooking utensils in the 1890s, followed by electrical cable shortly thereafter. Shortly after 1900, methods to make aluminum stronger by alloying it with other elements (such as copper) and by heat treatment were discovered, opening new possibilities. Although the Wright brothers used aluminum in their airplane engines, it wasn't until World War II that dramatic growth in aluminum use occurred, driven largely by the use of aluminum in aircraft. Following the war, building and construction applications of aluminum boomed due to growth in demand and the commercial advent of the extrusion process, an extremely versatile way to produce prismatic members. The next big market for aluminum was packaging. Between the late 1960s and the 1980s, the aluminum share of the U.S. beverage can market went from zero to nearly 100%. The most recent growth market for aluminum has been in automobiles and light trucks; over 220 lb of aluminum were used, on average, in each car produced in North America in 1996. In the 1990s, aluminum use grew at a mean rate of about 3% annually in the United States.

After the emergence of the initial aluminum alloys in the first half of the twentieth century, the development of aluminum alloys became more narrowly focused on specific applications. This has reduced the likelihood of alloy crossover from one market to another but not eliminated it. Also, new alloys are being developed both for mature markets such as aircraft and developing markets such as automobiles. These circumstances combine to offer opportunities for designers to employ aluminum in new ways.

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