Common Metals

Aluminum Is The First Choice Metal For Many

Aluminum is a very important common metal to modern industry. Its light weight and rust resistance make it the first choice metal for many manufactured products, from space shuttle components to soda cans.

The United States is the world’s largest consumer of aluminum, and is the 4th largest producer of primary metal.   Metal is made from two sources: primary metal, produced from ore and secondary metal, produced from scrap.

The aluminum industry truly impacts every neighborhood in the U.S., either through physical plants and facilities, recycling, heavy industry, or consumption of consumer goods. In 2007, the U.S. apparent consumption of aluminum totaled 5,110 thousand metric tons; down 15% from the previous year. Apparent consumption is the sum of domestic primary metal production, recovery from old aluminum scrap, net import reliance (excluding imported scrap), less exports.

The U.S. obtains aluminum from three sources: primary metal made from ore, secondary metal produced from aluminum scrap, and imported aluminum metals. In 2007, primary aluminum production totaled 2,554 thousand metric tons, while secondary production (from old scrap) amounted to 1,600 thousand metric tons.  Imports for consumption totaled 4,490 thousand metric tons and exports accounted for 2,840 thousand metric tons.

aluminum cans in production

The majority of U.S. primary aluminum production capacity is located in the Pacific Northwest and Ohio. The estimated 2007 world production of primary aluminum totaled 37,900 thousand metric tons, up 12% from 2006. North America accounted for 15% of the world’s 2007 production, while Asia accounted for 53% and the European Union accounted for 11%.

Global primary aluminum production grew at a compound annual growth rate of 6.2% between 2003 and 2007. Domestic primary production declined at an annual rate of 1.1%, while domestic secondary recovery declined at an annual rate of 6.4% in the same period. Aluminum imports continue to rise at an annual rate of 1.7%.

As a result of technical progress and the use of recycling, the U.S. aluminum industry has reduced its energy intensity by over two thirds over the past 40 years. The production of primary aluminum relies on an electrolytic process and is electricity-intensive. The industry’s energy end use accounts for over 340 trillion Btu per year.

After 100 years, the aluminum market is still in a growth phase as aluminum finds new applications and replaces other materials. As shown in Table 1, the top markets for the aluminum industry include transportation, containers and packaging, and building and construction.

Table 1 – North American Aluminum Major Markets

Markets 2006 2007 % Change
Containers & Packaging 2,320 2,220 -4.3%
Building & Construction 1,650 1,410 -14.5%
Transportation 3,930 3,580 -8.9%
Electrical 774 745 -3.7%
Consumer Durables 746 669 -10.3%
Machinery & Equipment 762 736 -3.4%
Other Markets 330 359 8.8%
Exports 1,270 1,450 14.2%

Source: The Aluminum Association, Inc.

Employment in the Aluminum Industry

At year end 2007, 6 companies were operating 14 domestic primary aluminum smelters in 11 States. In 2006, the alumina and aluminum production and processing industry employed 62,716 people.

Recycling Aluminum

Secondary aluminum is made from recycled aluminum products. The industry has invested millions of dollars to create over 10,000 recycling centers throughout the country. The growth of secondary metal production represents the greatest change in the structure of the industry. Recovery of aluminum from scrap totaled 3,850 thousand metric tons, with new scrap (manufacturing) accounting for 58% and old scrap (post-consumer) accounting for 42%.

The Aluminum Industry and the ITP

The aluminum industry is working with the Department of Energy’s Industrial Technologies Program (ITP) to increase energy efficiency and reduce costs in production.  Since 2001, ITP has supported the development of a radically new concept for melting aluminum that has demonstrated potential to revolutionize the industry melting capabilities. This concept is called the Isothermal Melting (ITM) process. The process can be applied in every segment of the aluminum industry to address the challenge of continuing to meet market demand for aluminum in the face of the United States’ increased reliance on imported primary aluminum ingots.