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Journey of Metals - Aluminium: From can to aircraft

23 September 2019

Aluminium: From can to aircraft

Mark Priestman, Director of Non-Ferrous at EMR

The aluminium can is one of the most recycled consumer products in the world – with a recycling rate ranging from 60% to over 90% in some countries[1]. From fizzy drinks to foil, with uses that extend far beyond the kitchen, aluminium has become increasingly present in our daily lives.  


Manufacturers can recycle aluminium again and again without the loss of any of its properties. So it’s unsurprising that an estimated 75%[2] of all aluminium ever made is still in circulation today. The majority of aluminium – 63%[3] – is, in fact, used for construction and mobility. This means that a discarded drinks can could go on to form a far-ranging number of items - from the wing of an aeroplane to the bonnet of a car.


Here we follow the journey of the unassuming aluminium can through to its multitude of impressive transformations.


Supporting sustainable construction

The construction industry accounts for 24% of end-uses for aluminium products. Used in the building of bridges, high-rise buildings and ‘green’ developments, aluminium’s use in construction really kicked off with the Empire State Building – where it was used to create the building’s iconic spire.


As a weather resistant and low-maintenance metal, aluminium can mainly be found in roofs, window frames, cladding and facades. It also features in bridge decks because, being more corrosion-resistant than other metals, it does not require painting or the associated curing (hardening) time. Aluminium’s high strength, low weight and enhanced durability mean that it is very effective as a structural material. In high-rises, modern aluminium alloys are able to support the weight of heavy glass windows, allowing natural sunlight to easily shine through.


Aluminium also comes with significant energy saving benefits when used in buildings. Coated aluminium roofing can reflect 96% of the sun’s radiant heat[4] to keep a building cool, while aluminium heat insulating layers help to keep buildings warm.


And with 95%[5] of aluminium in buildings recycled at end of use, demolition is rarely the end of the road for this versatile metal.


Keeping you moving

As a lightweight, durable and formable element, aluminium has long played an important part in keeping us on the move. Its high strength-to-weight ratio helps consumers and businesses save money on fuel across all kinds of vehicles, from trucks and cars to trains and subways.


Did you know that one kilogramme of aluminium can replace up to two kilogrammes of steel or cast iron? With lighter vehicle weight contributing to improved fuel economy and lower emissions, car manufacturers are increasing the aluminium content in their vehicles to cut CO2 emissions and improve local air quality. While the metal currently accounts for about 10% of the total weight per vehicle, this is expected to grow to 13% in 2020[6] as a result of impending emissions regulation.


The low weight of aluminium has been instrumental to innovation in the rail industry. From Japan’s famous Shinkansen bullet trains to next generation MagLev (magnetic levitation) transport, aluminium is being used extensively in the development of high-speed and suburban train technology. Today, around four in every five carriage bodies used for local and underground rail in Western Europe are manufactured from aluminium.


The sky’s the limit

What’s more, without aluminium it is unlikely that we would have taken to the skies - it was used to build the engine that powered the Wright brothers’ first flight[7]. Lightweight and strong enough to withstand the stresses of flight, aluminium alloys make up around 80% of a modern commercial aircraft’s unladen weight.


Aluminium has also carried us to the stars. The metal’s mechanical stability, dampening, thermal management and low weight make it the material of choice for space travel and satellites.


A key component of the Apollo spacecraft and the International Space Station, aluminium is likely to take humans much further afield in the not-so-distant future. The crew module of Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), a next generation, interplanetary spacecraft intended to carry a crew beyond low earth orbit, will be primarily constructed from an aluminium-lithium alloy[8].


In fact, aluminium supports space operations that are vital to our everyday lives. Satellites provide the ability to communicate with people across the globe, to enjoy a wide range of TV shows from our living rooms and to forecast the weather. Used in the creation of Sputnik, the first satellite launched into space, aluminium forms several parts of modern satellites, including honeycomb-structured panelling, insulation and metal reflectors, which help to protect equipment against radiation from the sun.


A green metal

With such a range of applications, it’s no wonder that demand for recycled aluminium is growing. While 8% of the earth’s crust is made up of aluminium, producing aluminium from primary sources is a complex process. Aluminium rarely occurs in its elemental state due to its high reactivity to oxygen. Almost all of the world’s aluminium is mined from the ore bauxite and refined into the metal we know through a highly energy and cost intensive series of processes.


Recycling aluminium, in comparison, only requires 5% of the energy needed for primary production and saves greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to a passenger plane making 46,000 round the world trips[9]. The long service life of aluminium, coupled with the latest technologies, have led to an increase in recycling rates, but demand for scrap is ever-growing.


Aluminium recycling plays an important role in the creation of a circular, closed-loop economy, saving costs, energy and emissions. No matter how it is used in its first life, aluminium can be easily recycled to create new products for entirely different markets an infinite number of times.


So, when you buy a fizzy drink - take a moment to think. The next time you see it, your recycled can could be soaring through space or holding up the next great skyscraper.

Mark Priestman, 
Director of Non-Ferrous at EMR












You can download our Journey of Metals infographic here.

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