Aluminum Material Flow

Aluminum is used globally; currently one of the world’s most widely used materials. There was around four million tons of aluminum produced in 2012, around 1.9 million tons for containers and packaging and 1.7 million tons for appliances and vehicles. Aluminum is produced for all types of industries, such as automotive, aerospace, and commercial. Its heavy use for containers and packaging is the commercial side, used for soda cans, containers, etc… The amount used for appliances and vehicles fits with automotive industry, where aluminum is used to make car frames stronger and more durable while decreasing the price and weight. With the large amount of aluminum being used and increasing, there will be an adverse effect on other material flows. The use of steel will diminish because the automotive industry will begin to replace steel frames with aluminum frames due to their durability, strength, and recyclability. Additionally, the use of steel cans will also begin to diminish because of aluminum’s recyclability. Aluminum’s wide ranging of uses including its strength, durability, and recyclability cause it to be a major rival to any other material, decreasing the material flow of others to accommodate for the large demand. In addition to its quality characteristics and uses, aluminum is also one of the most cost efficient of the base metals, making this material very hard to compete with.

The extraction of aluminum is huge in areas such as Australia, China, and Jamaica. Around these major hubs of aluminum are where the majority of the aluminum is primarily processed, the energy cost of extracting the bauxite is very high. Aluminum is manufactured and shipped around the world due to its high demand; this global product is very energy intensive to first extract, but the energy to recycle is only 5% of the energy to extract. Alcoa is one of the leading worldwide companies that manufacture bauxite into aluminum and aluminum products. The worldwide manufacturing and use of aluminum allows for huge markets across the globe, while also taking on huge energy costs when it comes to extraction, manufacturing, and transportation. While aluminum is a worldwide good, which impacts everyone on the planet every day, the major areas of use are highly populated areas such as developed countries and major cities. These areas involve uses such as framing in cars, framing materials used in construction of buildings, soda cans, computers, phones, and more. The wide variety of uses for aluminum allow for it to be used as an everyday item, but another major hurdle for everyday items is disposal. A huge positive associated with aluminum is that it is 100% recyclable, so the disposal cost and environmental/ energy factor is very minimal.

With the major extraction areas being Australia, China, and Jamaica, the flow of material is worldwide from these locations. The aluminum is treated and manufactured locally, near the extraction site, then sent anywhere around the world to be manufactured into a multitude of different goods. The vast majority of aluminum is extracted and manufactured in China; around 60% of the metric tonnes used worldwide in January 2017 came from China. Fundamentally thinking, the amount of goods produced and sold by China is very large, so the need to extract and use aluminum with the ability of recycling is huge for their economy. The recyclability allows for more and more energy to be put into recycling rather than extracting, reducing the energy consumptions dramatically. The efficiency of a product like aluminum is huge for a good producing giant such as China.

Critical regions of production and use of aluminum are highly populated areas, as mentioned before, but the worldwide use of aluminum can also make a case that there are no critical regions. While aluminum use is more highly concentrated in areas of higher populations, an argument can be made that if a material is an everyday item globally, is there any critical region? While this holds some merit, the higher populations do tend to be critical areas for the use and need of aluminum. With the use of aluminum in car frames, building construction, soda cans, mechanical pencils, lockers, computers, phones, trains, doors, etc… The more densely populated an area, the more critical it becomes to the item. Without these metropolises with high populations of people and large need for cost efficient, durable, and recyclable material, aluminum might not be an everyday material. These critical areas are in such high demand of versatile and reusable materials that aluminum found a niche. In addition, the disposal of this material is very minimal, due to its 100% recyclability the only disposal needs are the transportation from recycle bin to plant. The recycling process is so much more energy efficient than the extraction process that the ability of this material in critical areas is endless, with an incredibly long lifecycle.

The major issue of aluminum is the energy required to extract the material, the process for extracting the bauxite and processing into aluminum or usable products is so great. The 100% recyclability allows for little to no disposal issues and recycling uses 5% of the energy as extracting. Additionally, the durability and cost efficiency of aluminum makes the ability to obtain the material very easy. This leaves the extraction process as the only major issue, but strives have been made to improve the refining capacity by about 10% in the past 5 years by implementing cost effective technology upgrades and improving energy efficiency. And today extraction only requires 14.5 GJ per tonne alumina with 150 kWh/t Al₂O₃. Another small energy cost to aluminum which is associated with the extraction/ manufacturing phase is the transportation of the material worldwide. Being such a dynamic material, its use is needed globally, so once produced into a usable good, the transportation cost and energy to move the material needs to be accounted for.




2 thoughts on “Aluminum Material Flow

  1. It is great that things are being done to minimize the energy and environmental impact of aluminum! You mention that aluminum can be recycled without any issue, but does that mean percentage being recycled is actually high? Are the numbers for how much aluminum is being recycled substantial enough to say that its environmental impact is minimal?

    It is interesting that you bring up the fact that the flow of aluminum has adverse effects on the flow of other materials such as steel. This makes a lot of since, but I’m wondering, does the flow of aluminum have any positive effects on other materials? Or does it kind of stand on its own? I would imagine that with the production of aluminum comes that of something else, kind of like how concrete and steel are often paired together.


  2. Hi Prather! Very interesting article about aluminum. Aluminum is such a widely used materials. I was very surprised to notice that I don’t really know much about it. First off, I was really surprised to find out that only those countries are responsible for the manufacturing and extraction of the material. You didn’t really explain why those countries are the only ones. Is it because bauxite is only available to be extracted at those locations? In addition, I am very familiar with the work that Alcoa does. I was wondering if you know where they extract and manufacture their aluminum from since they are an American company and the material is not processed here?

    Something else that really caught my attention was the recycling process of the material. Does recycling only happen at the manufacturing plants? Or are they other locations where the material is recycled, perhaps at a local level? I am asking because during my research I found out that 30% of the world’s pollution is due to transport. I think it would be very energy consuming to ship all aluminum back to their manufacturers in the three countries that you mentioned. Finally, I was wondering what the cost is to recycle the material. I know you said it doesn’t require a lot of energy, but is it actually feasible for individuals to recycle aluminum? Certain places charge a lot for you to recycle your car, for example. Other than that, very good article. I look forward to your next post!


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