Though today it is one of the most common metals in the world, there was a time when aluminum was actually one of the rarest and most precious. It took the scientists who discovered aluminum years of experimentation before they succeeded in refining this elusive element.
Aluminum originates from the compound “alum,” given that name by French chemist and politician Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau in 1761. From as far back as 1787, scientists had hypothesized the existence of an unknown base metal in alum. While not quite the man who discovered aluminum, British chemist and inventor Sir Humphry Davy, can be credited for naming it (first as “alumium” before being given its current designation) in 1808.
It was in 1825 when a Danish chemist and physicist named Hans Christian Oersted developed a way of extracting small amounts of aluminum from alum by having anhydrous aluminum chloride react with potassium amalgam to produce a chunk of metal with properties similar to those of tin. German chemist Friedrich Wohler recreated Oersted’s experiment and came to the conclusion that the resulting metal was in fact pure potassium. In 1827, Wohler’s own experiments succeeded in obtaining aluminum from a mixture of anhydrous aluminum chloride and potassium. In 1846, French chemist Henri Etienne Sainte-Clair Deville made modifications on the Wohler system, such as replacing the significantly more costly potassium with the comparatively cheaper sodium.
The Deville method made it possible to produce aluminum commercially, which caused the metal’s price to drop. On April 2, 1889, American inventor and engineer Charles Martin Hull would patent an even cheaper way to extract aluminum out of aluminum oxide. Hull actually devised the process in 1865, but thisvery same process had also been coincidentally discovered in 1886 by French chemist Paul L.T. Heroult. The Hall-Heroult electrolytic process, as it would come to be known, involved the extraction of aluminum through electrolyzing a mixture of alumina dissolved in molten sodium fluoride or cryolite. This inexpensive technique would lead to an increase in the production of aluminum and a further drop in its price, causing it to cease being a precious metal by 1914.
Austrian chemist Karl Joseph Bayer should also be counted among the many geniuses who discovered aluminum. It was in 1888 that Bayer formulated an inexpensive means of extracting aluminum from bauxite, an ore containing a number of compounds as well as a great quantity of aluminum hydroxide. Along with the Hall-Heroult process, Bayer’s technique is one of the two primary methods still employed to manufacture aluminum today.
The credit of who discovered aluminum is usually attributed to either Oersted or Wohler, but the significant contributions and breakthroughs made by Deville, Hull, Heroult and Bayer cannot be overlooked. Thus the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust owes its development to the efforts and intellect of not one, but a number of brilliant scientific minds toiling throughout history.