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Science & Environment

The Rich History Of Aluminum

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Packing up leftovers from Christmas dinner probably means busting out a roll of aluminum foil. That strong, lightweight, cheap metal does more than just wrap food. It's in everything from airplanes and cars to house keys and soda cans. But aluminum was once rare and more valuable than gold. NPR's Scott Neuman tells the story.

SCOTT NEUMAN, BYLINE: The year was 1884. After decades of delays, the Washington Monument was almost complete. Officials wanted something really grand for the very top of what was in those days the tallest structure on earth. They chose aluminum.

DONALD SADOWAY: A pyramid with a square base, and it was aluminum.

NEUMAN: Donald Sadoway is a professor of materials chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the time, aluminum went for the princely sum of $16 a pound or about 420 in today's money. But Sadoway says it didn't last.

SADOWAY: Within two or three years of that moment, the price of aluminum was plummeting.

NEUMAN: Aluminum is the most abundant metal on earth. The problem is it bonds tightly to other elements.

SADOWAY: The bond is very strong, and it takes enormous energy could break that bond and pull the aluminum metal out of the compound.

NEUMAN: It wasn't until 1886 that an efficient way to do that was discovered, and that changed everything for aluminum. In five years, the price fell nearly 90%. And by the end of the century, raw aluminum sold for less than 50 cents a pound. And it came just in time to help usher in the age of powered flight. In 1903, the Wright brothers needed to save weight on their first airplane. They turned to a new aluminum alloy for their engine block. Robert van der Linden is a historian and curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

ROBERT VAN DER LINDEN: It needed every ounce of strength and every ounce of weight saved possible to get that thing in the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALUMINUM FOIL CRINKLING)

NEUMAN: That brings us back to aluminum foil. This flexible, bendy form of the metal was first used around 1915 to wrap candy such as Lifesavers. But it wasn't introduced for cooking until just after World War II. It quickly caught on because, unlike its predecessor tin foil, it didn't leave an odd taste in the leftovers. Scott Neuman, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: You can celebrate all the elements on the periodic table as it marks its 150th anniversary with NPR's new daily science podcast Short Wave. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.